Giuseppe Penone

Article excerpt


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. …


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