Giuseppe Penone is renowned rightly as one of the most important artists of his generation. Emerging through the late 1960s and 1970s as an exponent of Arte Povera, an avant garde Italian art movement that has had lasting effect, his career has gone from strength to strength. His work in the 2007 Biennale of Venice, for example, was a highlight in a choice selection of international contemporary art. This major exhibition, on both floors of Ikon Gallery, ranges from early seminal sculptures, drawings and photographs, through to recent and new pieces.
Penone’s aesthetic proposition springs from observations on natural phenomena, with a bearing particularly on our interaction with our environment. The nature of sensory perception is crucial for his proposition, especially through touch and sight – not surprisingly, given his choice of media. He has thus been consistently preoccupied with the eyes and skin, locations of interface between the human body and all that surrounds it. In this vein, Penone’s Rovesciare i propri occhi (Reverse Your Eyes, 1970), is a key work. It consists of a sequence of photographic slide projections showing the artist on a tree-lined road, each one zooming in on him until we can clearly see that his eyes are covered with mirrored contact lenses. In the dramatic final image we see Penone sightless and, in reverse, little convex reflections of what would otherwise be visible to him. He makes the point strongly that our knowledge of the world is derived ultimately from physical sensitivity. Many of Penone’s works, from the 1970s, involve impressions of his skin or magnifed images of eyelids.
Trees, with their compelling human resemblance, also often feature in Penone’s work; they have limbs and skin as we do. In 1968 Penone devised an action that involved him grasping a tree trunk, “adding his strength to the strength of the tree”, in an intense communion. This was documented by a beautiful black and white photograph. The artist then fixed a cast steel replica of his hand to the same place on the trunk and left it there for ten years. A photograph reveals a thick scar caused by the foreign metallic body, evidence of the tree’s remarkable power of assimilation. Penone also leaves a telling trace of himself in Soffio di Foglie (Breath of Leaves, 1979), a bed of dried leaves that bears an impression of his prostrate body. Near the head is a concavity as a result of his exhalation, the adding of his breath to the foliage that, when alive and attached, breathes for trees.
Essere fiume (Being a River, 1981–1995) draws an analogy between natural forces and artistic activity. Here Penone uses a mechanical masonry device to sculpt a quarry stone into an exact replica of a river stone, meticulously reproducing the smooth contours made from thousands of years of water erosion. The stone sculpture of a stone is exhibited alongside the original, demonstrating the artist’s conviction that what already exists in the natural world is wonderful enough, and that contrived products of the human imagination pale in comparison. This work sums up Penone’s radicalchallenge to conventional notions of art.
A catalogue is available, priced £21.00. Published in collaboration with Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo) the catalogue includes essays by Gianfranco Maraniello, Director of MAMbo, and Jonathan Watkins, Ikon Director, alongside new English translations of the artist’s poetic writing.
Giuseppe Penone’s exhibition is supported by the Italian Cultural Institute, the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation and the Henry Moore Foundation.