‘Usually the forest is our gallery’ says Hazel Stone. Ironically, however, Return to the Forest brings elements of the forest inside the gallery space at Grizedale Forest’s visitors centre. Stone is Forestry England’s North District Arts Development Manager who approached Nash with the proposal of a retrospective which focuses on his seminal residency in the forest in 1978.
Nash has forged a prolific international reputation over his fifty year career which has revolved around wooden sculptures. Much of this has its roots in his informative time spent at Grizedale from February – May 1978 as part of the residency programme which still continues today, where he had the opportunity to ‘experience a forest coming out of winter into spring, three months of continuous focus without fitting the work around a day job.’
During the residency – the second Arts Council funded stay, the first occupied by Richard Harris – Nash moved into an abandoned house in the forest with his wife, artist Claire Langdown, and two children – William, aged 5, and Jack, 12 months. The residency proved both personally and professionally important. Whilst Langdown carved in a makeshift studio in the house and Jack learned to walk, Nash worked in the forest, helping it become the UK’s first Forest for Sculpture. Nash’s practice was governed by three self-imposed principles which are akin to the mission of Forestry England today – to work with the environment and what the forest has to offer, to acknowledge the relationship of the forest to the people who work in it, and to only activate neutral spaces rather than those already imbued with a positive sense of place.
From the exhibition space you can glimpse the forest from which the works originated as light floods in through several windows and a large atrium skylight, like sunlight penetrating the forest canopy. There is a mixture of sculpture, drawings, film and photography on show – some for the first time – with the graphite and charcoal drawings purposefully hung in close proximity to the sculptures they reference, providing both beautifully simple visuals and a diagrammatic insight into Nash’s creative process. As the original sculptures were all reclaimed by the forest, the exhibition features later editions of them which the artist continues to develop, exemplifying the legacy of his Grizedale stay which runs throughout his practice.
Selecting works for the show, Stone tells me, was both easy and problematic. Easy because Nash documents the works in detail and, along with his assistants, has a deeply archival knowledge of his practice, but problematic due to the sheer volume of works to choose from. There was, however, one work Nash could not bear to have leave his studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales. This sentiment is much at odds with the artist we see in the exhibition, one who is not precious about his creations which he allows to float infinitely down rivers on their own whim or leaves to the mercy of the Grizedale deer and the Great British weather.
This openness to surroundings is carried into the gallery where there are no barriers or plinths for the large scale floor sculptures, chosen to exemplify a range of Nash’s favoured techniques, from the scorching of ‘Seed’ (2001) and carving of ‘Rough Ball’ (1984) to the pegging in ‘Tapering Pegged Box’ (1979) and the wrapping which forms ‘Chestnut Rollmop’ (1976). Though many of us are hardwired not to touch anything in a gallery setting, even if we have the opportunity, the omission of a barrier not only provides a proximity and bond to the works but also means that they are not confined, allowing them freedom and giving an expanded space which is more sympathetic to their original environment in the forest. As well as demonstrating Nash’s different approaches to the same medium, the floor-based sculptures are poles apart aesthetically. ‘Seed’ (2001), ‘Rough Ball’ (1984) and ‘Three Eucalyptus Balls’ (2003) are compact, globular forms, low to the ground and static, whilst ‘Running Table’ (1982) and ‘Apple Jacob’ (1988) are highly activated, anthropomorphic forms featuring ‘bodies’ and limb-like appendages which imbue them with movement.
Alongside the larger sculptures occupying the central space are small scale works which are elevated on plinths and juxtaposed with their formative drawings. Though they function as artworks in their own right, these pieces almost appear as maquettes. Their delicacy enhanced by the Perspex lids sitting atop them and satisfying an intermediary point between the commanding floor structures and the sketches. The latter are endearingly simple yet technically accurate and peppered with notes, the handwriting of which brings a heightened sense of the personal to the work. In one of the films we see Nash talking through his residency at Grizedale, illustrating his descriptions in chalk and erasing with his hands. He remembers it in great detail and the passion of these memories, along with the natural ebb and flow of his ideas, constructs a drawing similar to those seen in the space.
Returning to Nash’s principles, it is the second one – focusing on people and relationships – which is not only a pertinent consideration for institutions and wider humanity today, but one which echoes throughout Grizedale. It is a place of exchange and balance. Nash forged connections with the foresters by parking where they parked, using the same machinery as them and working the hours that they did, whilst Langdown made a carving for their courtyard as a gesture to the community which they were keen to put at ease by showing the human side of their alien, contemporary artist monikers. To this day the foresters gather slices of wood for one of the printmakers in the studios, projects are planned around the forest and its inhabitants and, during the exhibition install, Nash’s assistants traded stories with the foresters about their experiences with eucalyptus.
It is this sensitivity and openness to place and people which makes Grizedale special. The stale sense of ‘high art’ does not fit here; contemporary art is not parachuted in to better the surroundings. It must communicate and harmonise with it. The Go Ape nextdoor to the gallery is not a commercial inconvenience, it is another way for people to explore and enjoy the forest, and perhaps stumble upon the art on their way. During his residency, when Nash happened upon the inspiration for one of his foundational works, ‘Wooden Waterway’ (1978), he described it as ‘all the more powerful for it being physically experienced’; there is much to experience in Grizedale, whether art or otherwise.
The temporal nature of Nash’s residency works, like much Land Art, is part of its concept and charm. But, for those not lucky enough to experience it in the years shortly following 1978, this exhibition is a legacy moment for an artist instrumental in Grizedale’s evolution both historically and, by helping select the 2021 residents, into the future.
Laura Biddle is a curator, collection coordinator and writer based in Manchester.
This review is supported by Jeanette Edgar and Forestry England.