by Allison Hunter
After nearly four decades, Giuseppe Penone, one of the most famous of the Arte Povera group of artists, mounted his first retrospective exhibition this past spring. Simply titled "Giuseppe Penone: Retrospective Exhibition 1968-2004" (Centre Pompidou, April 21-August 23, 2004), the show presented a varied body of work, ranging from interventions in nature to cast pieces and wall reliefs. The result was a survey of Penone's career that traced his combination of the techniques and aims of traditional sculpture with an avant-garde sensibility. Retrospectives of Arte Povera artists like Penone help us to understand the movement and its influence on scores of younger artists' work such as Maurizio Cattelan's humorous dummies, Vanessa Beecroft's deadpan installations, and Rachel Whiteread's cast architectural objects.
The 57-year-old Penone
lives in Turin and Paris, where he teaches at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
He was born in Garessio, a small village near the Maritime Alps, where
he began making his first experimental works with nature, the Alpi
marittime (Maritime Alps), 1968-70. For Penone, the "space"
of his peasant village, with its wooded surroundings, represented a harmonious
blend of human life and nature, as opposed to Renaissance cities with
their rational planning and overwhelmingly spectacular buildings. Like
many artists working with "poor" materials, he found inspiration
in the natural environment, secular, pre-linguistic stone carvings, and
the land. Penone was also influenced by the legacy of his father (a hard-working
man trained as a traditional sculptor), who had inherited a plot of land
tilled by his grandfather 80 years before. In his artist statement of
1969, Penone highlighted details of the family's land: the number of hours
that went into its maintenance, the potatoes, vines, and stones found
on it still. These were the elements that became the motifs of Penone's
Meanwhile, the young
Penone, who was studying art in Turin, brought one of the documentary
photographs of his Alpi marittime (Maritime Alps) experiments
to Sperone who casually displayed it in his gallery. Soon after, Celant
noticed the photograph and tore it off the wall to use in his upcoming
book, Art Povera: Conceptual, Actual, or Impossible Art?, published
As is often the case
with documentation of performances, the photographs of Penone's process-based
work become fetishized when displayed in an institutional setting. Still,
it is better to have a photograph of the event than an old block of wax
and wire like Tappeto (Tapestry), 1969, to re-present the artist's
original dynamic intentions. Tappeto was a time-based work that
used heated wire to melt the surface of a wax block in less than two minutes.
Penone made no aesthetic attempt to draw with the wire as he had with
his silhouettes on trees. In the Pompidou show, the aged wax element looked
like a science experiment gone awry. In this first room of the exhibition,
it was hard to find the dynamic flurry of excitement that Penone lived
at the beginning of his career.
The adjacent room was filled with the installation Ripetere il bosco (To repeat the forest), 1969-97, Penone's well-known hollowed-out trees. Penone arrives at these forms from wood beams that he carves, leaving the knots in place until they emerge as limbs. The remains of the core look like a sapling. The multiple trees are displayed in various configurations depending on the installation site; some lean against the wall, others stand on their own wood bases.
Stepping from his outdoor works in the previous room to these smooth giraffe-like carvings, one wondered why Penone continued with Ripetere il bosco and did not explore his other ideas to this extent. Perhaps the aesthetic appeal of the carved trees meshed with his more conservative sensibility after the rebellious period of the '60s. Yet one can't help but find it disappointing that Penone's most recent and technically ambitious work is another carved tree, Cedro di Versailles (Cedar of Versailles), 2002-03. Penone acquired the five-ton cedar log after a massive storm uprooted dozens of trees from the Forest of Versailles. Cedro di Versailles was displayed in the museum's ground-floor Forum, below a mezzanine cafeteria and bustling crowds, looking sadly decorative and diminished.
Awaiting the viewer
in the next room upstairs was perhaps Penone's most famous work, Rovesciare
i pro-pri occhi (To reverse one's eyes), 1970. The famous photograph
depicts the handsome, young Penone wearing mirrored contact lenses he
had custom made so that he could experience his own body mass more objectively
by blinding himself. This action meant looking inward or, to put it in
his poetic terms, "reversing his eyes." It may appear naive
today, but this concept, captured on film, evokes a more powerful reaction
than any other documentation in the exhibition: it emphasizes Penone and
his action in the messy world of "culture," the space he so
often avoided, by including such details as clothing, hairstyle, and urban
background. Moreover, it includes the image of the photographer reflected
in the mirrored lenses. This simple action unfolds multiple readings of
self-reflection, photography, documentation, and the complex role of the
artist as capable—and incapable—of seeing the world.
A few years later, Penone produced Soffio (Breath), 1978, a series of terracotta vessels representing the volume of air drawn from a single breath into the artist's body. Presented as six similar rust-colored and womb-like forms in one space, Soffio recalls the installation Ripetere il bosco. However, in Soffio, the mysterious body-scale forms refuse simple translation. They combine conceptual intent with aesthetic interest. On closer observation, one sees an impression of the artist's body pressed into each form like an inverted spine leading the eye to a curious gaping form that is a mold of the interior of Penone's mouth. This stunning surprise masterfully evokes an entire generation of rants, screams, and Artaud-inspired theater.
Penone's more recent work in the retrospective included an installation, wall hangings, and elements cast in bronze, marble, gold, and crystal. Respirare I'ombra (To Breathe the Shadow), 1999, was previously included in an exhibition in a medieval castle in Avignon. Here, the installation transformed the white walls of the Pompidou into a welcoming meditative space. The room, lined by laurel leaves held by chicken wire, was darkly lit, and the ambient sound was muted by the leaves which gave off a subtle perfume. Penone seduces us with this display of sensual phenomena. With the addition of a pair of cast bronze human lungs protruding from the far wall, though, the figurative element somewhat overstates the obvious. We see this in other works as well, such as Spoglia d'oro su spine d'acacia (bocca) (Golden Skin on Acacia Thorns [Mouth]), 2001-02, an enormous work made of 30 pieces of silk on stretchers forming a 10-by-40-foot canvas dotted with acacia thorns glued to the surface. The thorns appear randomly dispersed, but at a distance, one can distinguish a pointillist drawing of a mouth. Once again, the figurative "key" appears at the center of the work: a small (roughly 10 inches square) sheet of gold reveals an impression of the artist's closed mouth cast in relief as though pressed up against the metal.
Allison Hunter is an artist and writer based in Houston, Texas.