In his current show Ramificazioni del Pensiero / Branches of Thought, on view at Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills, Giuseppe Penone continues his exploration into the heart of the natural materials that compose his work. Focusing on the interplay between man and nature, Penone draws human elements out of the wood and marble he sculpts, obviating an undercurrent of commonality between the human figure and the stoic forms of tree and stone.
The title of the exhibition refers to a line in the final stanza of John Keats’ lyric poem “Ode to Psyche,” in which the speaker witnesses an embrace between Eros, the Greek god of love, and Psyche. Penone’s choice of title not only reflects the connection between the limbs of a tree and the mind of the artist but also references the moment in Keats’ poem where the speaker devotes himself wholly to worshipping Psyche, an embodiment of creativity and the soul. Of course, this points directly to the artist’s drive to create, but with Penone’s focus on natural elements, there is a more subtle indication of the formative soul already contained within the elements.
Suggestive of the power of such a soul, Albero Porto-Cedro / Door Tree-Cedar (2012) allows a glimpse into a tree’s beginnings through a rectangular cavity in a thick tree trunk with a carving of a sapling at its center. The carved sapling’s inner branches extend into the walls of the trunk that holds it, a connection between past and present forms. At the base of the cavity, the tree rings, only visible by the artist’s intervention, show the tree’s growth as it aged.
Giuseppe Penone, Alpi marittime: Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto / Maritime Alps: It Will Continue to Grow Except at that Point (1968), via ArtofTheWeek
The artistry in the form of trees has been a constant theme in Penone’s work, notably in his early piece Alpi marittime: Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto / Maritime Alps: It Will Continue to Grow Except at that Point (1968), in which he wrapped a bronze cast of his hand around the trunk of a sapling, forcing it to grow around the cast. Both this and Albero Porto-Cedro / Door Tree-Cedar (2012) draw attention to the nature of growth and how radically time changes living things.
Giuseppe Penone, Anatomia / Anatomy (2011), © Giuseppe Penone. Courtesy Archivio Giuseppe Penone. Photography by Benjamin Lee Ritchie Handler
In another work, Luce zenitale / Zenithal Light (2012) the tree becomes the subject of the bronze cast itself. The dark exterior bark retains imprints of fingerprints, a record of the manmade casting process, while the texture of the shiny gold interior more closely represents tree bark. The tension between interior and exterior depicts the natural and the manmade as two sides of a whole. Similarly, Anatomia / Anatomy (2011), a 23-ton marble block, also breathes life into inorganic material. Following the pathways of the natural contours of the veined marble surface, Penone etched a branched pattern at once reminiscent of both tree limbs and a system of arteries and veins. The ambiguity of what branched pathway this piece actually represents—tree limbs or roots, a cardiovascular system, or simply an emphasized version of the swirls in the marble, the result of layers of impurities present during its formation—blurs the line between man and nature once again.
In Spine d’acacia–Contatto, aprile 2006 / Acacia Thorns–Contact, April 2006, Penone has constructed an expansive wall hanging consisting of hundreds of thorns attached to 12 canvases. From afar, the thorns take on the shape of lips, juxtaposing the sharp, threatening nature of the thorns with the softness and intimacy presented. The individual thorns in turn bring to mind the sensitivity of the lips, their numerous nerve endings as infinitesimal points defining the contact they experience.
Penone’s exhibition is on view through October 18th.