Rome

View of “Giuseppe Penone,” 2017. Foreground: Equivalenze (Equivalences), 2016. On wall, from left: Equivalenze-2 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 2, 2016); Equivalenze-7 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 7, 2016); Equivalenze-14 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 14, 2016). Photo: Matteo D’Eletto.

View of “Giuseppe Penone,” 2017. Foreground: Equivalenze (Equivalences), 2016. On wall, from left: Equivalenze-2 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 2, 2016); Equivalenze-7 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 7, 2016); Equivalenze-14 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 14, 2016). Photo: Matteo D’Eletto.

Giuseppe Penone

Gagosian | Rome

View of “Giuseppe Penone,” 2017. Foreground: Equivalenze (Equivalences), 2016. On wall, from left: Equivalenze-2 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 2, 2016); Equivalenze-7 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 7, 2016); Equivalenze-14 luglio 2016 (Equivalences, July 14, 2016). Photo: Matteo D’Eletto.

Since the 1960s, Giuseppe Penone’s work has been based on an osmosis between the vegetal and human worlds; his forms are marked by time and are always dependent on the relationship between nature and the artist’s body, and above all on a certain spiritual quality that allows him to perceive the secret rhythm of natural flows. And yet with this exhibition, “Equivalenze” (Equivalences), I was unable to avoid an off-putting feeling of chilling formalism. The show features some materials familiar from Penone’s work, such as terra-cotta, and some that are new, such as micro-drilled oxidized brass, which he here uses as a support for four works installed on the wall. In these pieces, each of whose titles includes the word Equivalenze and a date in July 2016, Penone has used clays of different colors from all over the world, gathered with assistance from the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, the French porcelain works that also helped him create Germination, the permanent large-scale installation that will inaugurate the Louvre Abu Dhabi later this year. The clay varies in hue from earth tones to pink to black, and each element bears both the imprint of the hand of the artist, who squeezed the material in his fist, and the memory of its place of origin. Chromatic variations give the works a pictorial quality, which is also fostered by the background against which they rest. Sheets of oxidized brass in shades of yellow and green serve as backdrops for enlarged details of skin, hairs, and imprints, which acquire violet or pink tonalities, depending on the duration of the acid’s application. These backgrounds, which lose their original connotation in being enlarged, instead evoke dense vegetation, twigs, and tufts of grass, and bring to mind naturalistic details of Renaissance painting.

The colored terra-cotta pieces resting on brass sheets variously mimic the bulbous shape of the Venus of Willendorf, leaves ruffled by the wind, or shells scattered on the sand. The contrast between the background landscape elements, which appear very carefully developed, and the simple naturalness of the imprint of the hand on clay is vaguely discordant. On the one hand, Penone keeps intact his direct contact with the material, but on the other, he gives the supporting structure the closed rectangular form of a classic painting, ill-suited to his poetics of organic forms freely expanding in space. The equivalence between nature and human skin gets mixed up in a layering of visual information and turns into a stylistic exercise.

Penone’s sculptures often are revealed through absence, by a void; this is true of two large bronzes featuring arboreal forms, each titled Equivalenze and dated 2016. In each, the structure of a twisted tree, emptied of its pulp, discloses its internal cavity and then continues onto the ground, expanding like a flow of solidified lava and revealing its underground anthropomorphic roots. Tree and body form an inextricable whole, a continuum of contiguous organisms. But the figurative portion, where the roots assume human form, is weaker and more tentative—almost incommensurable with the monumentality of the tree—and ends up seeming crushed by it.

Although Penone has previously used classical sculptural materials such as marble and bronze, he now seems to have developed a marked preference for them. These substances lend his work a ponderousness that contrasts with the most subtle and fascinating aspect of his art, namely his acute sensitivity to the vital breath of nature. It almost seems as if Penone has lost interest in the generative power of nature and needs the weight of tradition to grant his work meaning and substance. Another example of this can be seen in Foglie di pietra (Leaves of Stone), a large-scale piece that will be installed in April in the center of Rome, across from a Fendi store, which has donated the work to the city. Two interwoven bronze trees, approximately fifty-nine and twenty-nine feet tall, respectively, support an eleven-ton block of marble just over sixteen feet off the ground. Penone’s poetic research, based on the concept of the perennial transformation of nature over time, as well as of the human body, gets lost in this monumentality, which leads instead toward a solidification of time and history.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.