David Nash At Kew: A Natural Gallery, Kew Gardens, London

David Nash is the ideal artist to be given a big exhibition at Kew Gardens. The British sculptor has worked wood for several decades, and with more than 14,000 trees to be found in the south London botanical gardens, Nash’s year-long residency is enabling him to make new pieces on site. An ample outdoor workshop area called the Wood Quarry has been created. Here visitors can watch Nash at work on a tall, diseased English oak, more than 300 years old and suffering from terminal decline. With the help of a cherry picker and his trademark chain-saw, Nash has sliced off the bark and sapwood from the mighty trunk and cut out the rot. As a result, the oak is becoming a column, while branches wait expectantly on the ground to be carved into smaller yet no less arresting pieces.

This is the first time that Nash has chosen to share his working process with the public, and near the Wood Quarry a special shed offers film screenings that detail his activities elsewhere in the world. But the main part of this summer exhibition consists of finished sculptures placed in a variety of locations across Kew. They can be discovered on a fascinating journey through the gardens, and at every turn remind the visitor just how inventive Nash’s relationship with wood is. “I’m a sprinter, not a long-distance runner,” he says, “and that’s why I’m not a stone-carver.” His respect for trees is profound, and the fluidity and immediacy of his cutting is always inspired by a fundamental respect for the innate character of his material.

Inside the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, a selection of his earlier carvings and drawings is displayed in a concise show that testifies to Nash’s unceasing dialogue with the natural world. But on the approach to the Temperate House, a monumental carving called “Charred Cross Egg” shows just how provocative he can be in outdoor locations. Made of charred oak, this phallic form rears up and leans slightly to one side as if responding to the wind and sun. The dramatic darkness of its burnt surface contrasts very powerfully with the verdancy of live trees nearby. “Charred Cross Egg” looks like a survivor from a war zone, and Nash makes no attempt to hide the multitude of cracks running through its body. At the same time, though, the entire sculpture seems resilient as well, standing up stubbornly among the heavily foliated trees growing all around it in these fertile gardens.

Even if we often take trees for granted, Nash ensures that we look at them here with fresh eyes. Inside the Temperate House he relishes the opportunity to place no fewer than 19 works among plants reared in this damp, warm glasshouse. One wood carving, “Big Bowl” stands like a welcoming receptacle. It invites us to peer inside, and makes us feel as if we can see right into the tree. Another oak sculpture appears to be nestling in the earth under the massive leaves of a palm tree. And at the centre of the Temperate House, Nash has placed a tall, slender piece curving upwards as if in response to the nearby Chilean wine palm, believed to be the world’s tallest glasshouse plant. Another surprising moment occurs with “Red and Black Dome”, a cluster of carved forms placed next to some towering conifers called, ominously, Taiwanese coffin trees.

Leaving the Temperate House, the visitor is ambushed by several large black bronzes with titles such as “Torso”, “Three Humps” and “King and Queen”. They reflect Nash’s willingness to make casts of works which, originally carved from wood, are unlikely to withstand the rigours of outdoor locations. The bronzes at Kew were all cast from charred works that lend themselves best to a patinated metal surface. The two versions of “King and Queen” displayed here are immediately reminiscent of Henry Moore, but in Nash’s treatment the gender differences are far less apparent. The most impressive bronze exhibit here is “Black Butt”, originally carved from the base of a tree blighted by Dutch elm disease. It now looks like an enormous craggy boulder, and Nash’s cutting ensures that the rain runs straight off it rather than collecting in unsightly puddles.

Wood carvings return near the Main Gate, where “Oculus Block” still proclaims its original identity as a colossal Californian eucalyptus where four trunks merged into a single tree. Children at Kew can easily enter it and, once inside, gaze up through a hole at the top. But the reassuring stability of “Oculus Block” contrasts with the nearby “Cairn Column”, a charred oak which originally grew in Sussex, south-east England. It seems precarious at first, as if six separate pieces have been balanced on top of each other. In reality, though, “Cairn Column” is a tough assertion of wood’s innate strength. This resilient work should ideally remain here, as a permanent manifestation of Nash’s ability to engage with the elemental essence of wood by rescuing stricken trees and giving them new, redemptive life.

Opens June 9, continues until April 14 2013, www.kew.org

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