In the sunny main gallery of the Nasher Sculpture Center, a single tree branch seems to be growing out of a marble column. Or perhaps it has been trapped that way, memorialized in this regal way. Then, upon closer inspection, you'll see this branch, and the others like it, aren't branches at all, but bronze sculpted to appear branchlike in form. Suddenly the materials are in this new conversation, the bronze through the hands of the sculptor imitating a tree in nature. Is it imitation as a form of flattery? Is it artist playing god? It is a conversation about man's destruction of nature? Inside these pristine halls is it more important or less important than the trees seen through the window? Somehow all of these questions are valid and entirely bogus when looking at the work of Italian artist Giuseppe Penone. In his latest exhibition, Being the River, Repeating the Forest, on display through January 10, 2016, the work considers nature, and man's interaction with it, through the action of sculpture – through sculpting. Much of the work on display in what could be, but isn't officially, considered a mini retrospective for Penone is from previous decades of the artist's life. In each he explores a different aspect of man's effect on nature or vice versa. In Soffio di foglie/ Breath of Leaves, he imprints his body onto a pile of crepe myrtle leaves and then exhales to create a further impression on the pile. For many children this action is a fall tradition, but under Penone's touch, the intention is different. After an interaction with his body and his breath the leaves will remain that way, not swept up to be jumped on over and over again. In Spine-dacacia—Contatto, a piece from 2006 in which the artist's lips are made from acacia thorns poking through the canvas. The piece is concerned with the human sense of touch and it beautifully captures the tension between the sensitive skin on the lips and the threatening surface of thousands of thorns.
Penone, who is in his late 60's now, was the youngest member of the Arte Povera, or "poor art," movement, which was how critics described a number of Italian artists who rejected the artificiality of the pop art movement, as well as the austerity of minimalism, working instead connecting with the world they inhabited. Penone grew up outside of Garessio forest, which was where he began to make his first works of art. He was always interested in elemental materials, whether it be marble, leaves or wood, and most of his works have an aspect of time. In his early work, he would do things like leave a mark that would grow with the tree or affect it in some way. He attached a bronze hand, meant to resemble his own gripping a tree, forcing the tree to grow around and with this new attachment. Another time he pressed his body to a tree and marked the points of contact with barbed wire.
In later work, he would perform restorative acts to natural materials - at the center of the gallery there is a series of trees carved down from mature wood to demonstrate the timeline of the tree, revealing the memory of a younger tree, a sapling. Much of his work signifies an implicit connection between Penone and nature. In "Essere fiume (Being the River)" he uses a rock from the river bed and aims to replicate it through his sculptural practice, the title references the way in which the constant flow of the river shapes the rock in much the same way he does as a sculptor. These works might imply a Platonic aspiration toward the ideal rock, an unachievable, but worthy goal.
Penone has been relentless in pursuit of the connection between man and nature, something quickly lapsing in our digital world. Several of his pieces appear outdoors in the sculpture garden, where they seem at home, breathing a bit easier than the work in the gallery, where it seems almost scientific or sterile. In the Nasher's gorgeous gallery, the work looks a bit like it's been collected up by a mammoth squirrel preparing for winter. Outdoors, Penone's artistic gestures are more nuanced, more revelatory. The rocks placed high in a carved tree bring up gravity and its effect on nature; another sculpture bears an almost human form with root-like extensions and a small plant woven throughout the form. Nature has been Penone's laboratory, his muse, but never has it dictated his work. Instead, there seems to be a genuine symbiosis.
This exhibit, which will make a fascinating counterpart with the Dallas Museum of Art's International Pop exhibition opening next month, is a fine example of the Nasher's continued dialogue about the varieties of sculpture. It's not the most exciting art exhibition you'll see this year, but it's a good excuse to visit one of the most beautiful museums in the city.
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Giuseppe Penone: Being the River, Repeating the Forest continues through January 10, 2016. Admission is $10.