Andy Goldsworthy
Until 6 January 2008; Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Andy Goldsworthy is not an acquired taste. His art, lodged in the fields, snaking through woods and spirited away by rivers, is one of immediate appeal. Trip over his work in the countryside and you will be enchanted by its unexpected magic; look at his glossy photographs in a gallery and you’ll be seduced by the colours and patterns he charms out of nature.

It’s probably this instant appeal that has sown the seeds of doubt among many in the art world. Goldsworthy’s detractors say that his work is lightweight, little more than tricksy outdoor decoration. Land Art purists prefer the high conceptualism of Richard Long, this year’s big festival hitter at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In fact, though Goldsworthy has lived and worked in Scotland for over 20 years, he is represented in our national collection by just one small photographic work.

Apart from individual works dotted here and there (in particular in his home-town of Penpont in Dumfriesshire), Scots have never had an opportunity to explore Goldsworthy’s art in the round. That remains the case, but if you fancy a trip over the border, Yorkshire Sculpture Park has recently opened a massive exhibition of the artist’s work.

It’s massive in more ways than one: small works, photographs and documentation dating back as far as 1976 occupy two gallery buildings, and installations and larger paintings fill another two. Four new outdoor works (none of them petite) are dotted around the country park, a full 40 minutes’ hike from one end to the other.

Understandably, for an exhibition which is to last until next January, there are none of Goldsworthy’s more transient offerings to be found out of doors. No blood-red leaves wrapped around rocks, no bendy twigs drawing lines in space, or ornate dams of stone and wood straining under the pressure of a gushing burn. These, the artist’s most decorative works, are his most private too; having watched them disintegrate, he lets us into the secret with photographic evidence.

There’s no doubt that much of Goldsworthy’s work does look very pretty. He paints with the colours that nature provides, whether with the changing hues of beech leaves or the hidden red of iron-rich stone. He draws with stalks, stone walls, snow, clay. He enjoys the serpentine undulations of the wiggly line, and the perfect form of the pine-cone.

But Goldsworthy’s intentions go way beyond the purely decorative. His collaboration with nature doesn’t stop when the light fades, or the rain crashes down. It recognises the brutality of nature, and the harsh realities of working the land. Far from the hopeless hippy romantic that you might imagine him to be, Goldsworthy has worked in farming since the age of 13, and knows that it’s not all fresh summer meadows.

That much is clear in his collection of paintings made from animal manure and blood. In his Sheep Shit Snowball series, Goldsworthy placed snowballs full of excrement on large pieces of paper, allowing the melting flow to meander across the rumpling paper. The results are surprisingly luscious, the rich brown liquid zig-zagging its way to a final standstill in deep, textured pools.

A further painting of deer blood and snow is almost too gruesome to look at. The blood is blackened and encrusted, thick and tarry, binding straw to the paper. There is no decorative daintiness here; no wishy-washy tree-hugging whimsy. This is the Monarch Of The Glen turned inside out; the dirty, ignoble guts of aristocratic sporting pleasures. Goldsworthy is neither a deer-stalking gent nor a bare-foot hippy – he is a farmer-artist, gritting his teeth and getting down to work with all of nature’s powers.

This farming link is made explicit in Shadow Stone Fold, a working sheep enclosure built to the specifications of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s resident farmer. But this is no ordinary fold, like the wooden ones used locally. It’s beautifully constructed in locally quarried stone, and though its maze of gates and two-way mechanisms are built to order, the secret in its centre was certainly not on the farmer’s menu.

Hidden at the heart of the fold is a wall with no gates, somewhere sheep can never reach. Seven protruding steps in the wall invite you over and into this private area, where you encounter a 10-tonne slab of golden sandstone, flat on the ground. Sharing the space with this massive chunk of stone, you feel a sense of security which comes largely from the slab’s great permanence. It’s a miracle it got here, but even more so if it ever moves again.

That first encounter with the stone has great impact, and much of Goldsworthy’s best work does assault your senses when you are least expecting it. In the Underground Gallery, a former white cube space is transformed by the simplest of means: its walls are entirely plastered in cracked and drying clay, the sunlight broken into a thousand fragments by the myriad of curvaceous surfaces.

Next door, the gallery walls are entirely redundant, the room remade as an upturned basket of 760 logs of chestnut wood. The impact is sudden, and it’s a joy to sit in the darkness of the womb-like space and watch the reactions of visitors as they walk in for the first time. The smell of musty, warm wood hits them along with the darkness, and the beauty of the pattern of interweaving wood gradually reveals itself to their adjusting eyes.

The only room I have ever experienced like it was a reconstructed crannog on Loch Tay, and indeed Goldsworthy’s Outclosure, a high circular wall outside, reminds you of a ruined broch – both powerful players in Scotland’s social and architectural history.

It’s not just about high impact, though. Once the surprise has subsided, you can begin to consider the strong conceptual underpinning to Goldsworthy’s art. It’s not of the fashionable self-referential variety, turning a mirror on the process of its own making; instead, through close attention to materials, it tackles questions of change, growth and social history.

Running through all of Goldsworthy’s work is a palpable tension between permanence and transience. Whether built from tonnes of sandstone, chunky tree logs or tiny leaf stalks, his works hang together without glue, cement or nails; designed to last, but not forever. His fascination with disintegration has led to some pretty spectacular feats in the past, such as the furtive depositing of giant snowballs in midsummer London.

Not quite melting, but still intensely fragile, the Clay Room speaks volumes about the building it occupies. The clay reaches right up to the concrete rafters, and almost merging into them, it’s a stark reminder that even the most durable materials are essentially of this earth, and will fall apart in time.

The clay – all 20 tonnes of it – was dug out of the land at Yorkshire Sculpture Park itself, re-establishing that connection between the land and buildings which otherwise might seem alien to it. Goldsworthy is a man who gets under the surface of a place, and runs his hand over it too. With stunning economy and eloquence, he draws out truths we didn’t see before. Once seen, they will never be forgotten.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 15.04.07