Rooted in landscape Chwarel Goed - Wood Quarry: David Nash At the Centre for Visual Arts, Working Street, Cardiff until 18 June and The Old Market Hall, Blaenau Ffestiniog from July to September
David Nash, who was born in Surrey in 1945, has lived and worked in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales, since 1966. There the remarkable juxtaposition of mountain, dramatically scarred by the brutal process of slate quarrying, and the woodlands of the valleys has provided him with the deep sources of his art - spiritually, intellectually and materially. He has said, 'The land lives in me, just as I live in the land', and the essential connection of place and work is further expressed in the title of this major exhibition, 'Chwarel Goed - Wood Quarry'.
The exhibition is in two parts: a group of recent large sculptures are installed in the tall, daylit Street Level Gallery at the Centre for Visual Arts, and a 25-year retrospective of smaller pieces and drawings is in the artificially lit Underground Gallery.
The latter is particularly effective in revealing the link between the work and the setting of Blaenau Ffestiniog, through the documentation of two of his most important environmental pieces, Ash Dome and Wooden Boulder. Ash Dome is a circle of 22 ash trees, which Nash planted in the Vale of Ffestiniog in 1977, and which he has pruned and bent to form a dome. This is presented in drawings and photographs which reveal the relationship between idea, context, living material and process.
A similar method of graphic narrative describes Wooden Boulder, a large, almost spherical block of oak, which Nash cut from a felled oak high in a valley. Since 1978 the 'boulder' has made a journey, under the influence of natural forces, down a mountain stream and this has, again, been recorded in drawings and photographs. In each case the graphics eloquently capture the relation of the object to both place and time.
The smaller sculptures are packed densely into their basement space, on floor, tables and shelves, in a way which recalls images of the interior of Nash's studio (see picture). This, in effect, transforms the space into an Aladdin's cave in which one may follow the course and diversity of Nash's explorations of the potential of his material - and, in a sense, acquire the grounding from which to move to the pieces in the Street Level Gallery.
In this more conventional gallery installation Nash's work clearly declares its international credentials. Each of these pieces locate him in the great tradition of carved sculpture in which process and material combine in the creation of original form. Works as different from each other as Mizunara Bowl, carved from Japanese oak, Crack and Warp Column, from tulip wood, or Extended Cube, in which a solid cube of cedar is cut, deconstructed and recomposed, show how the use of the tools of the forester, such as a chain-saw, can release the latent forms which lie within each piece of raw material.
Nash's collaboration with his material is carried further by his use of green timber, so that the process of drying continues the development of the form as the material cracks and warps. He also, in some works, chars the whole or part of a piece to convert the vegetable (timber) into a mineral (carbon), and hence disclose yet another facet of the material. In Cube, Sphere, Pyramid Nash combines both carving and charring and presents the latest example of his long fascination with the Platonic solids. He also associates these forms with the outlines of three mountains seen from Porthmadog, near his home. The three-dimensional works, carved from cypress and strongly incised with deep, charred cuts, are juxtaposed with two-dimensional charcoal renderings of the figures to provoke two alternative modes of perception.
David Nash's work is deeply rooted in the landscape in which he lives. Without the unique topography, geology, botany and climate of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the implications of its sociology and industry, his work could not have followed the rich path which is revealed here. But it would be a mistake to assume that this is a specifically Welsh art - to do so would diminish it. Nash's achievement is to discover those elements in his situation which transcend its Welshness and to invest these with wider meanings. It is the work's universal appeal which makes this such a compelling exhibition and, perhaps, thereby serves as a powerful metaphor for the cultural aspirations of the new Wales.
Dean Hawkes is an architect and professor at the Welsh School of Architecture