The Italian artist Giuseppe Penone takes his body as the starting point for monumental works exploring the portals and limits of sensory experience—skin, eyelids, and fingertips. This quietly impressive and beautifully installed show at the Drawing Center focuses on 25 years of metaphysical investigations hovering between drawing and sculpture that situate the artist as one (by no means primary) element in a vast system of nature.
Embracing the principles of the Italian movement Arte Povera—including a commitment to humble materials and a re-evaluation of all artistic hierarchies—he puts touch, traditionally the lowliest of the senses, at the center of his aesthetic universe. Exquisite small rubbings made by soiling his mouth, his eye, or a leaf with charcoal, then lifting off their ghostly impressions with adhesive tape, seem at once ancient and modern, recalling both fossils and photographic negatives.
Labor and suffering are thrown into the equation. One gigantic canvas is covered with acacia thorns tracing intricate networks that suggest the flow of traffic or communication around a great metropolis, but are based upon an imprint of the artist’s forehead. A mural in homage to the eyelid—almond-shaped pieces of unwoven fiber, veined with charcoal and layered over one another—evokes tree bark, birds’ wings, or the mountains, clouds, and rivers of Tang dynasty landscapes. The show’s chef d’oeuvre—10 painstaking, man-sized drawings of concentric circles, all beginning with a single fingerprint—fans out along the side wall of a gallery that seems to breathe like some corporeal creature. Each of these works participates in a complex dialogue between fullness and emptiness, blindness and insight.