art


At the age of 14, Rene witnessed his mother, being pulled out of the river;  her lower body was exposed and her nightdress was over her head concealing her face.  Was it her, and if it wasn’t where had she gone, what had happened?   But Rene never talked about it;  he didn’t trust words.  He just expressed it through the medium he had control of; painting.  He was an artist philosopher.   Perhaps all ‘creative’ artists are.  What is art, if not visual metaphor?   

Rene Magritte just took it further.  His painterly skill allowed his imagination the freedom to use the image to describe the thought.  His images express the way the mind connects ideas.  They have a dream like quality because that’s how our mind sees things when we are not fixed by the consciousness of real time and space and the rules of language.  So like dreams, his images break the rules, size is relative, shape distorted, there are impossible associations.  In The Dominion of Light, he merges light and day, street lights illuminate a street against a bright afternoon sky,  a bird flies over a dark sea, its shape filled in by a bright cloudy sky.   A crescent moon is placed in painted in front of the dark tree,   the artist creates the woman by painting her, the landscape on the canvas becomes the view, the window pane breaks up into pieces of the landscape viewed through it, a  couple kiss with cloths over their heads, an act of intimacy between two people who are concealed from each other.   

The theme of concealment dominates his work.  He creates illusion by representation.  Magritte liked a mystery, the anonymous detectives in bowler hats coming to arrest and assailant, the woman’s body on the operating table, the same bowler-hatted figures of differing sizes descending like rain in front of the buildings of his home town.   

Magritte wasn’t so much looking for meaning, he was more interested in the process of how we represent ideas; he wanted to express ideas as he perceived them.  Our mind, as the extension of the vast neuronal network that is our brain, makes connections between ideas and actions and feelings.  Having conceived of a certain way of thinking, we return to it again and again, establishing neural connections like paths through the forest.   But our mind’s reality makes connections which are impossible in the real world.  Magritte shows us the way our mind thinks about things.  So a pipe is not always a pipe but represents something much more potent, a carrot morphs into a bottle, a bird becomes part of the sky, clouds are like object and thoughts. 

Magritte recognised how words condition our thought, fixing and channelling the meaning, so he experimented with different words for objects.  Words tell us what an object is, but our mind sees other connotations.  Poetry plays with this idea.  It explores the power of words, but also their limitations.  Freud and Jung explored the same territory in their papers on symbolism and dream, but at least Freud had the honesty to admit that ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’.    

Magritte, The Pleasure Principle,  is currently being exhibited at Tate Liverpool on Albert Dock. 

The idealistic Konstantin, humiliated by his famous mother, the actress Irina Arkidina, his play publicly dismissed as ridiculous, tries to shoot himself but instead shoots a seagull and presents the corpse to Nina, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, whom he adores.  Nina is disturbed and disgusted, but shows it to the sinister Trigorin, a famous writer and house guest, who notes down the metaphor for future use.   Nina is in thrall to Trigorin.  She sees in him an opportunity to escape the cage of the family estate and take flight as an actress.  She follows Trigorin to Moscow, becomes pregnant and is rejected by the writer who is being kept by Irina. The baby dies, her family lock their gates against her, and she is transformed into the kind of tragic heroine that the painter, George Frederick Watts depicted in his allegorical studies of hope and poverty. She becomes the seagull.    

Watts had taken as his child bride the teenage actress, Ellen Terry, in order to protect her from the same fate, or so the story goes.  The marriage failed.   It was supposedly never consummated. According to the amusing fiction by Lynne Truss, Watts just wasn’t interested in her that way.  Released from Watts’ protection, Ellen soared upwards to become the most famous actress of her generation. 

The Seagull possesses the usual Chekhovian themes; the country house, a self indulgent Russian bourgeoisie, decadent, bored and in decline,  the threatening clouds of the oncoming revolution  And the actors have the same familiar roles, the ageing actress and matriarch playing to the balcony while the theatre crumbles around her,  the elderly and ailing uncle, the owner of the estate, representing old Russia about to vanish forever, the frustrated and bullish farm manager, fed up with the old ways and wanting progress,  the desperate young author, the naive and fragile girl, and the doctor, perhaps Chekhov himself, a reflective observer, not entirely engaging with it all.  Soon all will be scattered.  Seen from this perspective, the seagull presents a broader perspective on the oncoming crisis,  a fragile but beautiful way of life soon to be chopped down like The Cherry Orchard.  Of course, the characters seem hysterical and self centred, they are all in love with love as a form of escape, the end of their world is coming; what else can they do?  It wouldn’t be theatre if they all behaved sensibly and worked together. 

The Seagull is currently playing at the Arcola Theatre in Stoke Newington; not an area I know well but accessible via the London Overground.  The theatre is a converted warehouse.  The set and seating are rough and ready but the cast and direction is as accomplished as many productions you might see in the West End.  Geraldine James plays the actress and matriarch.  The doctor is played by Roger Lloyd Peck, recently seconded from the Dibley parish council.  Chekhov billed the play as a comedy but nobody in Stoke Newington was laughing.

The Watts Gallery opened at Compton on the North Downs outside Guildford on June 18th.  It is said to be the only major gallery in the country devoted to a single artist.  Watts was immensely popular in his heyday; two rooms were devoted to his paintings in the newly opened Tate Gallery at Millbank but the fashion for Victorian art changed and by the nineteen fifties you could pick up his paintings for less than a hundred pounds.  His museum at Compton fell into disrepair but was rescued by coming second in the BBC’s Restoration programme and then getting a 4 million pound lottery grant.  Watts’ paintings are not exactly cheerful.  The most famous are allegories of themes like hope, poverty and despair.  They are sombre and intense; Watts saw his mission to produce work that encourage young people to think about moral issues.   

Lynne Truss didn’t treat Watts kindly.  In her novel, Tennyson’s Gift, which described with humour the characters that circled the bard of Farringford, she portrayed him as self obsessed and sexually repressed.  Who knows, if he had been more responsive to Ellen’s allures, she may never have felt the need to escape to the stage.    

Art is not just a pleasing arrangement of shapes, textures and colours; it can only be properly appreciated in its cultural context.   So-called ‘Conceptual’ artists use imagery to explores a theme that resonates with and provides insight into contemporary culture.  In an age of internet dating and casual sex, Tracey Emin dares to explore female lust.  Damien Hirst, on the other hand, expresses a more ordered corporate theme, in which feelings, emotions are put into boxes and bottles and categorised.  But isn’t all art conceptual?  Maybe historical notions of art were much more limited to religious imagery, myth, society portrait and landscape, but like classical musicians, each artist interpreted those concepts according to the fashion and spirit of the age.   Likewise The Romantics, Turner’s misty decaying ruins alongside the engines of the industrial revolution, the pre-Raphaelite expression of the Victorian tension between spirituality and sexuality expressed the way the artist saw them as an instrument of the prevailing culture.  But increasingly art has come to represent political and social themes.  The Spanish artists, Picasso’s Guernica, Miro’s burnt canvases screamed their outrage at the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.  Perhaps photojournalism occupies the same niche nowadays.  One well constructed image is worth a thousand words.

So art changes as the social environment changes.  But the artist also helps to create that environment by conceptualising aspects of culture in images and structures.  So art is a medium to help people gain insight and understanding of their culture as expressed through the expressive perspective of one individual.  

Of course, the creation of the artist says as much if not more about them as it does about the culture (though they are still a representative of the culture).   Successful artists can be and often are self centred to the point of obsession; you might say they have to be.  And in a narcissistic age,  some art has self indulgent to the point of boredom.  Do we really want to know so much about Tracey’s soiled bed, used condoms or how many men she fucked in her tent?  Are we interested in the relationship with Louise Bourgeois’ father and her governess?   In as much as it informs us about aspects of culture and psychology we are.  Louis Bourgeois depicted a whole psychoanalysis in her art.  Joseph Beuys went one stage further; he invented a fantastic personal narrative through his art;  catapulted from his crippled Stuka when it crashed in deep snow in Crimea in 1944, he claims to have been rescued by Tartar tribesman, who kept him alive by wrapping his broken body in felt and animal fat and feeding him milk.  His art reflects aspects of that incident as well the boundary between fantasy and reality.   

Other artists use their experience to express something wider, more general, while maintaining the  template of their formative life experience to fashion a recognisable identity-in-style.  Henry Moore drew large female figures with holes in them to represent his fixation on the beloved, though at times distant mother; there were gaps in their relationship. . 

Some artists are more blatently commercial in their adherence to culture; they generate shapes, ideas that people want.  Anish Kapoor creates large reflecting surfaces, bulges, wax installations, that people enjoy.  ‘Art is not meant to be controversial’, he recently declared.  He likes to be liked.       

 Art doesn’t so much create the object, it creates the environment, the mental space through which the rest of us can think about their own existence.  In doing so, it both represents the culture and helps to create it.  The process can be transformative, but for some artists it can become iterative and hermetic, the unending scratching, etching of an itch until something changes to change the focus; war, famine, love.  

Some art will travel; either because it expresses a universal theme, like love, or because its meaning is so meaningfully abstract, so that people from different cultures bring their own meaning to it.   Shakespeare travels and so does Turner.   Is this what makes art great?   Is this the function of art; to create the space for the thoughts of others to enter.  In our instant, media culture, people are often considered clever because they say what everybody else is thinking and wish they had said it.  They re clever because they make everybody feel clever.   Is that what artists do; set down a challenge that makes the rest of us feel clever by gaining insight?  If so, they don’t necessarily do it deliberately.  

‘They tell me it’s great art.  To me, it was just another scribble’

 

It’s always good to talk to my brother; he is an artist and gets me to think out of the box!

Gabriel Orozco is like his ball of plasticine, Yielding Stone 1992,  rolling along, always on the move, always picking up new ideas, things from the streets, imprints, objects, impressions.  He installs whatever he thinks is interesting, often distorting them to remove their utility, change their function, so that they engage more closely with the viewer as a work of art, a receptacle for meaning.  In one installation (Lintels 2001),  he gathered the plaques of felt from the filters of spin dryers, with their residues of hair, nails, grit and paper, and hung up on wires like washing lines.   When this was exhibited in New York in November 2001, the ash coloured skins of lint with their message of the transience of human life, took on a poignant significance; something about the residues, the impermanence of life.  In Carambola with pendulum 1996,  he distorts the billiard table and suspends one ball on a wire so that it swings over the table. The players make up their own rules; hit the other white ball into the swinging red, strike the red so that it swings high over the edge of the table, position the other white ball so that it is in the path of the red.   In Dial Tone, 1992, he slices the pages of the New York phone book and places the anonymous digits next to one another on a 10 metre roll of Japanese paper.  It’s a measure of the city.  In La DS, 1993, he cuts a Citroen car in three pieces, removes the central section and rebuilds the car in an aerodynamic form without an engine.  It’s beautiful, creates an impression of a contender for the land speed record, but totally useless.   

Orozco loves to play, to invent, he is fascinated by the meaning in everyday things, as a child would.    While he was artist in residence in Berlin, he bought a yellow Schwalbe, a motor scooter, and then roamed the city looking for a partner, another yellow motor scooter, photographing the pair wherever they met (Until you find another yellow Schwalbe 1995).  In a five star hotel in India, he was given three rolls of toilet paper, so he fixed them to the arms of the fan in his room, so that the paper streamed out with the rotation like pennants, and danced to it, Ventilator 1997. 

Orozco explores the pattern of things, their organisation from chaos, their reordering into art.  He collects the bits of blown out tires he finds at the side of the motorway and arranges them like black crocodiles on a white sheet of paper, Chicotes 2010.  In Black Kites, he imposes order on death by inscribing a geometrical black and white grid on a human skull.  As a child, he was obsessed with planetary motion, the orbits, ellipses, circles.  This obsession appears in his work,  in Samurai Tree and Atomist Series 2006 and Four Bicycles; there is always one direction 1994, in which he slots four bicycles together, so that the wheels rotate in different directions. It might be a comment on the ambivalence of life.       

There is something touching and personal in Oroczo’s work,  he is not afraid of expressing his childlike self, exposing his vulnerability.  This is perhaps most movingly expressed in My hands are my heart, 1991, in which he shapes a lump of clay, of the same colour as his skin, with his hands then has this photographed against his chest, exposing, as it were, his heart.

‘You’re rather like Diogenes in his barrel’,  David declared on his fourth visit to my little cottage in Edensor.   Was that a compliment?   Well, on the principle of the glass being half full, I decided that it was.  I quite liked the idea of being perceived by the medical fraternity as a hermit, living the thoughtful life, so unworldly that I would ask the Dowager  (the nearest we have here to Alexander the Great,) to get out of the sun.  Though I did wonder if I have rather corrupted the ascetic image by becoming a bit too busy with politics and The Gut Trust.   

We spent the first hour grumbling about how our regulated society was stifling research, inhibiting education, undermining government, taking away the art and enjoyment of life, but risk aversion was part of a cycle.   In medicine, it was probably triggered by the dreadful revelations about Dr Harold Shipman; in economics,  by the greed of the bankers.    

A nervous society finds its ways of getting rid of those who will not conform to its stringent regulations.  We are both reading The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes.   It’s about Socrates’ life, but takes as its starting point, his death.  Accused of being a free thinker and corrupting the youth by speaking against the Gods, Socrates was condemned to take his own death by drinking a cup of hemlock.   My old friend, Maurice, was incarcerated in a mental institution last year on the grounds that he was a danger to society.  Always resentful of authority,  Maurice was targeted by the police and neutralised.  Even the spurious interpretation of a brain scan using nuclear magnetic resonance was used to reinforce the case against him.    

David and I have reached an appropriate stage of seniority when we can with impunity comment on what we see as the failings of the medical establishment.  But this privilege has been hard won.  We are both first born and have both shouldered the burden of our parents’ ambitions for most of our lives.  David commented that it was not until the age of fifty that he escaped the straitjacket imposed by a reputation in medical research and felt free to indulge his interest in philosophy.  At around the same time, he became aware of his parents not just as projections of himself, mum and dad, but more objectively in the context of their own lives.  My trajectory ran parallel to his.  At 49, I started to retrain as a psychoanalytical psychotherapist and at 53 I retired and began writing my book.  Perhaps this was our age of reflection,  the time that we could at last be ourselves,  rail about the restrictions bequeathed to us by our parents indulge in a more liberal intellectual life. 

Does late middle age constitute a similar age of reflection for others besides the eldest sons of ambitious parents?

Sorry to moan, but I’ve got flu.   At least that’s what I think I’ve got.   It could be the return of the auld trubble – the malaria, but it doesn’t quite fit the pattern.  I begin to feel wobbly and shivery about dusk every afternoon, not every other day like I did with malaria.   My back and the muscles of my shoulders ache and I have a fairly superficial pain just above my nose where the sinuses are.   I’m coughing thick yellow phlegm and expelling the same gunk through my nose.  And I feel so tired I just can’t do any more.   No, let’s call it flu.  That’s what a lot of medicine is, after all, informed guesswork.   And before you ask, I didn’t take up the government’s offer of a flu jab this winter. 

I went to see the quack this morning.  The snow had all but thawed, but the wet ice outside the surgery was treacherous.   Was this an opportunist way of creating new business by a new entrepreneurial NHS?   Anyway, Dr Watson agreed enthusiastically with my deductions and I now have a bottle or crimson and custard minibombs to assist my waving immune system, a caution against unwise excursions into the mountains and more concern that the stress may have aroused dormant histiocytes.  I get the blood tests back tonight.   

It’s amazing in a way how a non specific infection like flu can bring on the gamut of unexplained symptoms; the exhaustion, fatigue, depressing muscle ache, the anorexia and early satiety, the bowel aches and pains, shortness of breath, the lot.   It’s like the virus switches on a non specific pattern of illness not unlike that induced by trauma, grief or disappointment, the chronic loss of hope that erodes life force.  I didn’t hear from my daughters this Christmas.  Maybe that’s what’s got to me

I came across a lovely few lines by Emily Dickinson on hope

Hope is that thing with feathers,

that perches in the soul,

and sings a song with no words

and doesn’t stop at all.

 

Only that particular yellow bird had gone off to feed in another garden. 

Time to re-stock the feeders.

In one video,  the artist stopped people in the street and asked them to look into the camera and say  ‘Je t’aime’ (I love you).   Her subjects found it so difficult.  Their body language was so defensive.   They laughed, looked away, crossed their arms, shuffled their feet, lit a cigarette.  Some just couldn’t do it at all.  Just three words, but these three words carried such heartfelt hope and desire that uttering them, even to somebody they had not met before and would not meet again, carried a dreadful risk of rejection and destruction.  As they composed themselves to do it, their faces  became softer, more child-like, more appealing, more vulnerable. Their gazes lingered on the camera as they tried to assess the risk. It was as if saying I love you stripped away a defensive mask and made them appear loveable.  The words meant so much.    

So much human expression is defensive posturing.  It feels so dangerous to reveal our needs and desires.  We need love so much, yet are terrified of its power to subsume all the meaning in our lives and potentially destroy us.’ If we ever doubted love’s affect on the human psyche, just look at these faces. Strangely, it is the men not the women who seemed more vulnerable and frightened.  Perhaps they have more to lose.      

‘Emportez moi’ (Sweep me off my feet), at the MecVal Centre in Paris, is a brave and powerful  evocation of the power of passion to bewitch and destroy, to throw us off balance into the white waters of emotion in ways both wonderful and painful, always at the risk of losing ourselves. 

The works include videos on the interplay of harmonised gazes and movements, the tenderness of a caress, the passion of a kiss, the ecstacy of multiple orgasm, the spontaneous lament of lonely men in a late night bar (crying over you), even the poignant tableau of the two parakeets, who died for their love.  As mediums for longing,  impulses, illusions and abandonments, they  express sorrow and solitude as much as they do hope, expectation and ecstacy.    

As the programme for the exhibition points out,  ‘perhaps the true subject here is the deeply human appetite for encounter; the search, the desire, transport and the vertiginous sensation of possibility.’

She is beautiful, her body stretches, bends and arches  with the tone and grace of an animal.  And when she discards her shift, she moves with that lack of self consciousness and engagement that obviates desire.  It is the artist who seems self conscious.  He is shown holding a zebra by a leash,  awkward, hardly daring to look at the dancer. 

Yet this is Lucian Freud,  an artist who reputedly establishes such intense intimacy with his models that he can strip away the vanities of their skin to the bare anatomical essentials.  But there is little hint of intimacy in his paintings, no semblance of engagement.  Nobody smiles. Many of his sitters are painted sleeping, as if he cannot bear to have a real human connection with them.  And those that are not sleeping, look out at us in a way that that seem cold and disinterested.  His skin tones are grey and a soiled beige, more livid around the genitals and nipples, the hair dull and untidy.  His subjects seem lifeless.  In the video, he tells of how he kept vigil by his dead sister for days as the body began to decompose.   

An exceptionally shy and private man, who rarely gives interviews, it is like Freud can only engage intimately with people if he can turn them into anatomical specimens.  He exposes their barest human essentials, strips away any personality, and declares,  not without aggression, ‘there is no pretence here; this is the way you are.’ 

His skill as a painter is in no doubt.  His botanical paintings and the paintings of his dog, have the same anatomical frankness as his human subjects.  But perhaps this meticulous attention to detail also distances him from his sitters   

The video shows clips of him strolling along the Regent’s Canal with a kestrel on his wrist.  The beak and dark eye of the bird mirror his own hooked nose and penetrating stare.  Does he have the same killers regard for his ‘prey’?      

 We wonder.  Like a dream, the work of the conceptual artist tells us so much about their personality, though of course we perceive this through the filter of our own experience.  So perhaps it is better to say that the work of an artist informs how they affect us, like an intimate conversation or like a session of psychotherapy.  The art is the material of the counter-transference.   We need to acknowledge this to get under the skin tones and creases of the artist.  Freud knows this.  His numerous naked self portraits reveal and conceal everything.  He is, although he may wish to distance himself from the connection,  the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst who got under the psychological skin of his subjects but remained unseen behind the head of the couch in his green chair.   

An exhibition of Lucian Freud, L’atelier (the studio), is currently showing at The Pompidou Centre in Paris.     

For Henry Moore, art was the expression of the imagination rather than representation.   He was not just a craftsman, he was an explorer.  With typical Yorkshire bluntness,  he declared, ‘I express myself in shapes; that’s my language.’  The same recurrent shapes featured prominently in Moore’s  work, the reclining female figure, the holes, the mother and child.   

Moore was the youngest of seven children from Castleford.  His father was a miner.  They were not well off.  His early work was influenced by the primitive; Etruscan funerary monuments, pre Columbian Mexican figures, the statues on Easter Island, Sumerian art, African masks. These forms appealed directly to his emotions.  His reclining figures bear a striking resemblance to the Chac Mool, the Gods in the Yucatan temples.  Action during the First World War traumatised the young man and must have added its influence to his deformed bodily shapes with holes in them. 

Most of Moore’s sculptures were direct carvings, like Jacob Epstein’s. He wanted to keep faith with the medium.  He liked to use local stone; the veins and colour and blemishes in the stone became an integral part of his sculptures.  Like Michelangelo, who quarried his own stone at Carrera,   Moore had a feeling for the material, lived with it until something meaningful crystallised in it.  Craft then shaped it to the final realisation.  He placed his large reclining figures with the gaps and holes in the landscape, so they not only part of the landscape, but you could see the landscape through them. 

Moore didn’t achieve public recognition until the Second World War when Kenneth Clark appointed him a wartime artist.  His images of people asleep on the platforms of tube stations in London summed up the solid, indomitable spirit of Londoners during the blitz and expressed something of hilself.  He would go down into the underground stations, incongruous in his suit and tie  and just observe; he didn’t want to intrude.  He made notes on the way out and then drew what he saw later. 

Moore’s sculptures,  outside the art gallery in Leeds or spaced out in Bretton Park, seem as familiar as Yorkshire pudding, but a new exhibition of his work shows him as edgy and awkward as a Pennine outcrop.  He was influenced by the work of TS Eliot, DH Lawrence and Sigmund Freud.  For Moore, the body as object was erotic, vulnerable, violated, visceral, deformed, open and fragmented.  It allied sex and death; a literal, honest counterpoint to Stalinist ‘realism’; he showed it as it was, not how others wanted it to be.  Formed at the time of global conflict and political upheaval, but heavily influenced by his early life,   Moore’s art was troubling.  The forms an artist creates are an inescapable part of his make-up; Moore’s make-up was troubled.  He longed to know where he came from.  ‘What shape did my mother have before I knew she was my mother?’   One cannot go back further than he has – the moment before one became two. 

Henry Moore was a big man, a working man, craggy and direct,  but as emotional as the wind and rain. There is fear and evasion in his observant eyes.  His celebrity attracted psychoanalytical interpretation, but Moore never wanted to see any hidden or unconscious meaning in the shapes he created.  ‘I felt that if I understood too much about myself I would stop working.’

Eric Neumann in ‘The Archetypical World of Henry Moore’, noted that none of his mother and child compositions were gazing at each other.  And for him, the holes represented separation – the space between too much and too little meaning.   Sometimes the mother was represented as a breast with the head of the infant fused with it and sometimes the infant was a bird devouring the breast and the mother had it by the neck.  It was the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, who talked about the significance of the good breast and the bad breast as polarised representations of the mother in the child’s mind.   Within selfhood turns the phantasy of childhood; truth, history and sensation twisted into a familiar form.   Moore acknowledged that he might have ‘a mother fixation’, but none- the-less reports a close relationship with his mother. 

Another psychoanalyst, Francis Tustin has written that Moore’s oeuvre suggests autistic relationships, not related to the gaze or the word but more to the touch.  Moore talked about a common fund of understandable shapes.  He had a tactile relationship with his objects and his medium.  His most expressive memory of his mother was of rubbing her rheumatic back with linament.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his female forms are large, substantial maternal figures with broad backs.  Autism is also suggested in the gaps, the bits of the body that don’t connect.   Tustin concludes, by rather fanciful rhetoric, that Moore overcame his autistic childhood  by being able to enfold his experience into the living sensation of shape; thus avoiding the black hole at the very edge of meaning.  

One can almost hear the big man sigh.    

The new exhibition at Tate Britain, on until August 8th, has been heralded by The Guardian as the most important exhibition of Moore’s work for a generation.  I spent a day there and will go back.   

David Nash has a real fascination with wood.  He knows his material intimately.  He knows how it weathers, dries out, splits aling the grain.  He understands how it chars and how it becomes waterlogged and rots.  Wood expresses the fundamental elements of life; earth, fire, air and water.  Nash is interested in how wood comes into being, how it occupies a place and how it changes.  It might be a commentary on the human lifespan.   

Some of his creations take years for Nash to complete.  He planted Ash Dome, a ring of ash trees in 1977 and then fletched the joints so that as they grew, they appeared to be dancing in sequence and then bending in on each other to form the shape of a dome.  . 

He launched his wooden boulder in a stream in 1979 and followed its progress, urged on by storms and floods until it reached a bigger river and finally the estuary.  He then plotted its progress with the tide up and down the estuary until it finally disappeared.  Now after three years, it has turned up again in the same estuary. 

In Bretton Park, he has charred a tree trunk and bole by building a palisade of sticks around them and setting them alight with a burner.   The surface of the trunk splits and cracks into shiny charcoal nodules.  He has embedded 28 charred oak steps up the Oxley Bank in 30 tons of Barnsley coal.  They will slowly be worn down by people walking on them and return to the earth.  Nash likes to study how things decay. 

He bought his chapel studio in Blanau Ffestiniog in 1967.   Hunkered down n a wasteland of slate, filled with half completed works, one gets the impression that he is waiting for growth and time to transform them and him.    

Occasionally Nash’s his work is more political.  The charred verticals and cross pieces of ‘An awful falling’ evoke the destruction of The World Trade Centre,  while ‘Husk’ a group of hollowed out, charred, rectangular blocks of oak, resemble a burnt out village in Palestine. 

I love the scale of Nash’s work.   Who would wait 30 years for nature to complete a work?  Who would shape a gigantic piece Californian redwood shaped into a square with a gigantic two man chain saw and install it with off-cuts in an underground gallery in Yorkshire?   Who would arrange three massive tree trunks on the lawn, curious to see the way the wood would split.   But at the other end of the scale is elegant Ubus, two slender limbs of wood, one oak, one beech, leaning into each other to resemble an arch, reminiscent of the whalebone arch in Cley-next-the-sea.

This is my second visit to Nash’s epic retrospective at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Simon gave me his ticket to the opening and I met the artist.  He had the look of an explorer about him, a trained observer, more scientist than artist; clear, perceptive, curious, calculating and full of insight and possibility.  I marvelled again at the confidence and self belief of the artist and guessed that it came from a fascination with the object and not with himself as the artist.

He piercing blue eyes put me in context as they would a block of wood.    

 ‘So you’re Simon’s brother.  Yes, I see.  You’re like him.  Is he still on the boat?’ 

 

David Nash’s exhibition will be at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until February, changing with time and the seasons.  It’s not far away; I shall evolve with it.   

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