Giuseppe Penone is an Italian sculptor who has had a long history of working with wood and other natural materials, creating works which address the relationship between man and nature.
One of the first pieces you see as you enter the underground gallery is ‘Nel legno (In the wood), 2008’. Here he has taken a large larch wood beam, selected a single growth ring and carved it back to this ring, revealing the sapling hidden inside.
In a similar vein, the centrepiece of the exhibition is ‘Matrice (Matrix), 2015’. Here he has done the reverse and cut a fir tree along its length and hollowed it out to a selected growth ring. At one point along its length, there is a bronze cast of the complete interior of the growth ring.
These and similar pieces are extremely impressive. They have scale, skilful craftsmanship, beauty of form and a message in discovering exploring the beauty of form within a tree and exploring different moments in its lifetime.
I also enjoyed his wall pieces, his carving of marble to raise the natural veins and highlight their natural beauty, using thousands of acacia thorns to draw his closed eyelids in ‘A occhi chiusi (With eyes closed), 2009’, or making it look like a steel grid had been pressed into marble in ‘Corpo di pietra – rete (Body of stone – grid), 2016’.
However, as a craftsman working with bronze, some of his pieces grated with me.
‘Corpo di pietra – rami (Body of stone – branches), 2016’ is a beautiful piece in its overall impression. But when you examine it closely (which unfortunately I didn’t photograph), the protruding bronze twigs were as they would have been picked up from the foundry floor. They were jaggedly cut off and had flashing left on them, which for me detracted from the piece. On the other hand, due to its scale it was a piece which was designed to be viewed from afar, so maybe I am being picky here.
His life-size sculptures of trees supporting boulders were a different matter though, such as ‘Luce e ombra (Light and shadow), 2014’. Again on close inspection the poor finish on the welded joints annoyed me. More importantly though, for an artist whose oeuvre is all about trees, celebrating their beauty and exploring nature and the natural, the patina on these sculptures makes them look dull and dead. If that was the intention / message he was trying to convey then that is fine, but I don’t believe that to be the case, so for me these pieces fail.