“The fingernail which tears away and retains the scraped earth; the earth separates the flesh from the nail. In scraping continuously, one loses one’s fingernails. By substituting the flesh of the fingers with the earth of the fields one has a vision of the vapour rising. The fingernail bears the print of the flesh and projects it with its growth into space and dissolves it in air.”
—G. PENONE, quoted in G. Maraniello (ed.), Giuseppe Penone: Writings 1968-2008., Bologna 2008, p. 222
Giuseppe Penone’s crisply eloquent Ventuno Unghiate (Twenty-one Claws) is imbued with conceptual poeticism. Rendered in 1988, Penone places four segments of white paper upon a wall, rupturing the stark surface with twenty-one holes. Upon each rip he appends a plaster-cast impression of his fingernail. These imprints become records of his artistic act. The fingernail is a vessel containing traces of his actions – a remnant of him lingers as he makes his incision and reciprocally a fragment of the paper remains beneath his nail. Penone’s interest in the fingernail came to the fore during this period, connected to his wider aesthetic preoccupation with the interplay of man, nature and art. Comparable to the range of organic elements Penone has explored throughout his works, including skin, leather and trees, fingernails are emblematic of the life of their bearer. Penone expands upon this notion, explaining ‘I thought of the fingernail because, in my work regarding the human body, I have always in particular focused my research on the elements pertaining to touch. Because to find out if a substance is soft or hard, you tap it with your fingernail; it is really an instrument, a highly important tool in the understanding of matter’ (G. Penone, quoted in Giuseppe Penone, exh. cat., Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2004, p. 280). Visually, Penone’s manipulation of surface may be seen to extend the legacy of Lucio Fontana’s Tagli and Bucchi. However, whereas Fontana’s works are characterized by an autonomous universality, Penone’s work is a visceral expression of human interaction with physical matter. As the ‘frontier between the interior of the body and the exterior’, the fingernail plays a central role in the artist’s relentless exploration of the symbiosis between humankind and its environment (G. Penone, quoted in Giuseppe Penone, exh. cat., Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2004, p. 280).