The sculptures from which this extraordinary exhibition of selected new and older works by Giuseppe Penone takes its name—Indistinti confini, (Indistinct Boundaries)—look like ordinary tree trunks mounted on finished marble bases and covered with a thick coat of flat white paint, save for certain areas where the bark is peeled away, or where branches are cross-sectioned at their origin. When one realizes that the painted bark is in fact sculpted from Carrara marble, and that the areas of exposed “wood” are not wood but cast bronze, one is shocked in the way one is when one’s perception and sense of reality are deeply challenged. These sculptures were created not with computer-assisted robotics, but traditionally, with point and hammer, so as to preserve the emphasis on details to which the eye is naturally drawn. In contrast to this degree of control, the bronze insets of Indistinti confini will in time gain a patina; their pigment will enter into and interact with the marble surround, as influenced by the particular conditions of the siting of each sculpture. And so the bounded limits of marble and bronze, at present clearly defined, will become more diffuse, as fluid as the Italian rivers after which each work is named. Like a gessoed canvas that awaits paint, these exquisite works await the patient hand of nature—wind, water, copper, iron, and the other elements, and forces of earth and air. Standing in the gallery, this is only their beginning.
On ViewMarian Goodman Gallery
March 18 – April 25, 2015
These works reach backward as well as forward in time, all the way to the beginning of Penone’s oeuvre, an oeuvre that defies easy characterization or label—as internally coherent as it is breathlessly expansive. These qualities are in clear evidence in this pristinely displayed collection of sculpture and drawing curated by Dieter Schwarz. Indistinti confini illustrates preoccupations residing at the heart of Penone’s work: the element of surprise when one’s perceptions are challenged; the marking of time, both in the uncovering of the past and the anticipation of the future; the relationship between material, gesture, and impression; the use of an effortful, performative, time-honored art-making methodology; the tension inherent in the boundary between inside and outside; and the discovery of the sublime in the simple. Above all, Penone in all his work locates culture in nature.
As an art student in Turin in the late 1960s, Penone encountered contemporary artwork at the Sperone Gallery, which showed works of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris. He soon made a name for himself as the youngest member of the Arte Povera movement, carrying out a series of acts in and around the forest outside his small hometown of Garessio in Italy’s Maritime Alps. While he quickly began to exhibit at Sperone and throughout Europe, most, if not all, of his subsequent production extends or elaborates on these early foundational works. “The first gesture of a sculptor,” Penone writes, occurs when “you press a piece of clay with your hand.” Sculpture, then, is the disturbance of the boundary between the sculptor and the material that represents the world outside the body. Penone does just this in “Avvolgere la terra” (“Rising Earth/To Enfold the Earth/Rising Earth” 2014), an installation of 10 terracotta sculptures formed by squeezing clay through a hand making a fist. Each form was then wrapped in aluminum foil, and is displayed against the unwrapped foil now creased and indented by it. The clay receives form from the hand, and the metal receives form from the clay, upsetting two boundaries in the process, while transforming the three-dimensional space within the hand onto a two-dimensional plane.
A less literal expression of the sculptor’s “first gesture” is “Soffio di foglie” (“Breath of Leaves”), a well-known work dating from 1979. Recreated here, it consists of a pile of myrtle leaves that remembers the impression of Penone’s prone body, perforating the distinction between animal and vegetal. The leaves were also displaced by the artist’s exhaled breath, a volume of air measured and sculpted by its containment and expulsion from his lungs; the trace it leaves is only slightly less ephemeral. “Soffio di foglie” is documented in a large, eponymous gray-tone painting on paper, repeating the two-dimensional transformation of form in “Avvolgere la terra.”Two similar illustrations of previous installations of Soffio di foglie are also exhibited in the show; these painted representations are enduring records of temporal impressions: memories of memories.
Drawings have always accompanied Penone’s sculptural works. The stunning “Pelle di grafite—palpebral” (“Skin of graphite—eyelid” 2012) is a six-meter-long, three-part tone-on-tone drawing composed of graphite on black canvas that enlarges in great detail the delicate texture of the skin of the eyelid. Closed to the outer world but not to the inner world, this work is traceable to the iconic photograph “Rovesciare i propri occhi” (“To reverse one’s eyes” 1970), of a young Penone wearing mirrored contact lenses. On display here, the image renders visual the continuity between the internal sensing world, and the external world mirrored in his eyes—a continuity heightened by his temporary “blindness” to the visual border that demarcates these two realms. Then and now, Penone speaks to our intrinsic being of and belonging to nature, and the lack of any real boundary or difference between us and it. In this digital age, his work grounds and elevates us, opening our eyes in the present to the silent but vital remnants of an animistic past.