New York

Giuseppe Penone

Marian Goodman Gallery | New York

The problem of art today is not to find new form and new content, new style and new meaning, but strong, old affect. This has become the new desideratum, given the progressive elimination of feeling that has been going on in art since the ’60s. The restriction of affect that has been evident in both representational and nonrepresentational work is the result of an obsessive-compulsive attempt—initiated by a few “superior” artists and quickly become chic in the clubby, get-on-the-bandwagon atmosphere of the art world—to implant a conceptual imperative in art’s brain. This restriction may have given art intellectual credibility but it has undermined its staying power, overemphasizing the uselessness that supposedly makes it esthetically superior to the practical, everyday world. Art has trivialized itself into a semiotic game which allows it to think it can hold its own philosophically, can appear before the throne of divine mind without embarrassment. But the mind also values whim, playfulness. spontaneity, the impure play of all the faculties which engages the full creative potential. Art must try to emulate the mind’s creative play as well as its self-possession if it is to have effect on others and not be stuck simply with insight into itself. It must break through its crust of intellectualism to reach the impacted sublimity of feeling and the impure unconscious. In the current situation, self-consciousness is no longer the liberation it once was in Modernism—which doesn’t mean one gives it up altogether. It is the cane one uses to steady oneself on the introspective journey to feeling.

Giuseppe Penone attempts to return to the spontaneous gesture of art-making, to a gesture fraught with intense affect and primitive impulse, a gesture that is, in Penone’s words, “ideal container of the transience of a form . . . full with the feeling of farewell.” The sense of the temporality of gesture is acute in Penone, and the fact that the form the gesture means to fertilize is “both vegetable and feminine,” inseparable from the generative cycle of nature, makes the gesture all the more “timely’’ and intense. Alfred North Whitehead has described feeling as a “prehension,” a fundamental way of assessing the relevance of concretely other being for one’s own being. In the tour de force of Penone’s exhibition, a series of bronze figures seeming to grow out of pots of soil, each figure represents a different moment in the temporal evolution of a feeling for the alien other. The figures become gestures of feeling, reflecting its spontaneity and transience. The naturalness of feeling, which is inseparable from its temporality, informs these figures, literally ”naturalizing“ them—making them into ”conceptual" manifestations of the cyclic time of nature.

An explicit interest in the metamorphoses of nature, and in the metamorphosis of the human into the natural (echoing Ovid), informs Penone’s pursuit of feeling. He offers a sense of the lost paradise of human unity with nature. This pastoralism is not simply an old literary conceit: in a world in which nature has been increasingly ghettoized, has become a tired survivor whose existence is tolerated only as part of the general spectacle, it is powerful with political as well as poetic point. Penone resolves the contradiction between man and nature in an art that is like a belated, melancholy gesture of love for nature. To conceive the figure as landscape and landscape as figural is, it seems to me, one of the few credible ways of artistically dealing with nature today.

In the work already mentioned, from 1984, primitive human figures—which Penone originates in elemental clay and finalizes in eternal bronze—grow from earth like gnarled vines. Their nakedness is covered with leaves, as if they were the first sinners—the first beings to emerge from nature through their own nature, their sexuality. These are deliberately cultivated potted “plants,” archaic forms of a primitive feeling for life as such, an oasis in the desert of the gallery, peculiarly—awkwardly, attenuatedly—voluptuous. The situation Penone creates is entirely artificial, a way of reminding us that nature, and authentic sexuality, exist only as memories. Penone himself describes the “feel” of one of the female figures as that of Gislebertus’ famous “crawling” Eve, 1125–35—another memory of guiltless sexuality, as voluptuous as only innocence and memory can be.

In a 1984 wall piece this same Eve reappears, in ghostly form, as a simple modern dress collaged onto a painting of the primitive interior of a forest. Her figure ambiguously both returns to and emerges from nature—a Daphne “regressing” back into the tree that marks her, a Eurydice metamorphosizing out of the hell of nature. In another 1984 work a poem is inscribed in cow’s blood on the loose hanging cloth that Penone typically uses, a kind of literalization of the “blood of the poet” idea, making the words more “enchanting.”

Penone’s works are subtly imbued with mythological allusions ploughed under in the works’ materiality. They offer a sense of the eternal recurrence of mythological truth in and through material: art mythologizes material, its material mythologizes meaning. Penone’s handling of ancient mythology has a kind of conceptual sparseness, a sense of restraint according well with his pursuit of the archaic—which is really the eternal as it is unconsciously “prehended” in the transient gesture of feeling which spontaneously makes it one’s own.

Donald Kuspit