New York

Giuseppe Penone

Marian Goodman Gallery | New York

The idea that art’s illusions of life can confuse with the real thing has ancient roots: in the Pygmalion myth; in the story of Zeuxis’s painted grapes (mistakenly pecked at by birds); even in painting’s very beginnings, when to depict a hunted beast may have been something like actually catching one. Giuseppe Penone’s most striking sculpture revives the dream that the image is alive and even pushes it a little, mixing forms in bronze, say, with living trees. Deepening our psychic investment, a trace of the figure appears in many of his works, so that, while they lean on or even incorporate green nature, they end up in an in-between space where human life, vegetable life, and the historically cold media of art overlap.

Penone’s sculpture can fail by verging on kitsch, for although kitsch is sometimes vibrant in art, the kind determined by a chord of beneficent humanism is rarely so, and the Mediterranean dimension of Penone’s art can make it all the plummier. His recent show carried echoes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with its fusions of people and flowers or trees. The first piece one saw in the gallery, Pelle di Foglie (Skin of Leaves), 1999–2000, was a kind of vertical storm of bronze sticks. multifariously angled and scattered but nonetheless intimating a figure. Rising tall as though swept up by a cyclone, the sticks compose a network in which carefully placed bronze leaves model the contours of the body; gradually making out a face high in the air, the viewer is moved to look for the whole form. Pelle di Foglie is wildly dynamic, its powerful sense of movement suggesting a Futurist sculpture inspired not by the machine but by nature—a work part Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, part The Blair Witch Project.

Here and elsewhere such subtly unsettling undertones gave the show spine. In Linee d’Acqua (Lines of Water), 1999, a skeletally bare bronze tree becomes a fountain as water drips steadily from points in its single branch, which pokes out horizontally several feet above head height. It was pleasant to find a fountain in a gallery, but if you stopped to think of any halfway decent one in the urban outdoors, where flows of water make pools of freshness and cool, this one began to seem quite gallows-like. The strongest presence in the show was Respirare l’Ombra (To Breathe the Shadow), 1998, a wall completely covered with a three-inch-thick layer of bay leaves. Bay, or laurel, is classically an emblem of victory, and the texture of the tightly packed gray green leaves—together with their scent, which filled the space—had a certain heart-gladdening kick. But the leaves were contained in a sober series of chicken-wire modules, austere and minimal, and in the middle of the wall hung another human/vegetal fusion, an arrangement of cast-bronze leaves in the shape of a human rib cage. “Breathe the shadow” indeed, but life-affirming nature love is probably best tempered—at least in art—with a twist of something fatal. So it was fine that the show left me thinking not of Ovid but of the Jacobean poet John Webster, who had his own vision of plants: “All the flowers of the spring / Meet to perfume our burying.”

David Frankel