The Haunch of Venison is one of my favourite London spaces: a gallery wholly conducive to art’s potential to inspire the aesthetic experience. The current exhibition – a pairing of the work of the internationally acclaimed Italian artist Giuseppe Penone with that of one of Britain’s most important artists and the pioneer of ‘Land and Conceptual art’, Richard Long – is an impressive, and beautiful display that truly embraces the confines of the gallery. Both artists, working with natural elements, speak to the reality of the living world that surrounds us.
While the nearby Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is crowded and busy both with art and with people, the temporary home for Penone and Long feels unhurried and calm. Wandering from one room to the next, from one artist to the other, as one’s gaze drifts across stylized slices of the natural world, one’s mind is drawn out and away from the reality of our concrete city.
I chose to wander through Penone’s space first. His work here, both old and new, uses wood and bronze. Best known, perhaps, for his work with trees, Penone presents a perception of the natural world, both an exposure of the inner workings – the growth-rings of the wood – and the recreation of the exterior, the rough bark of the tree. Pelle di grafite [2003-2008] is a large-scale series of black drawings, in which the skin becomes our own visual landscape. For me, these images sum up what Penone’s art is, how it questions the connection with self, body, and nature. The issue of where ‘we’ end, and where nature begins seems irrelevant here, where man seems inseparable from nature, and both are transformed by the interaction.
Artists encourage us to consider an awareness of the ‘oneness’ of man and nature, something that can be too easily ignored. Penone’s art reveals the hidden realities and energy that can be released by man’s interaction with his natural environment. The piece that most exemplifies this concept for me is Propagazione (Propagation) . In the work, an ink fingerprint lies at the centre of a sheet of paper. Pencil and pen lines extend from this starting point outwards in concentric rings like the whorls of the fingerprint itself. Finger, pen, ink, paper – contact between man and material – creates an image that obviously yet subtly connects the artist, his environment and the observer.
The fingerprint, man’s unique trace, continues as a theme in Richard Long’s work as well. He has described his art as ‘a portrait of the artist touching the earth’. Hands appear in many of his pieces, from the silhouette of one hand in Shadow in an Empty Kiln, China , to the series of handprints in white china clay on black card, Untitled  in which each hand leads on from the next, ending abruptly in the centre, as if in a maze. This linear theme is continued in a series of photographs of sculptures made on his journeys, from a trail of stones along the River Yangzte in River Yangtze Stone Line, China , to a line created by walking in snow in Autumn Snowline, Switzerland .
Words, the poetry of nature and the landscape he has walked, are integral to Richard Long’s art. He states on his website:
‘In the nature of things:
Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.
Simple creative acts of walking and marking
about place, locality, time, distance and measurement.
Works using raw materials and my human scale
in the reality of landscapes.’
The work on display in the exhibition demonstrates this ethos: art that emanates from landscapes and reflects the artist’s passage through them: sculptures in stone and wood amongst words and paint.
The final work on display is an enormous wall exhibit, Human Nature , which was painted directly on the gallery wall. Monumental in size and impact, it contains man-made blue pigment with naturally occurring red clay, a fitting emblem to end a show, which challenges one to consider the human, the natural, the real, and us, our landscape and habitat.
Both artists meet in one room, Long has a sculpture in stones, Stone Print Spiral , Penone a wood work, Spazio di Luce  in which he has carved along the lines of growth-rings. On one level, a spiral, circular theme connects both, as well as their use of natural material. However, the simplicity of this connection alone, while aesthetically important, undermines something much more profound, and complex. There is a message here, conveyed through the most available and real of material, about a responsibility that the artist feels to man, to nature and to humanity. As the paintbrush leaves the canvas, as the words appear on the page, and as the final stone completes the circle, the responsibility becomes that of the viewers.
The exhibition succeeds in rendering tangible an elusive connection. As I consider this inseparable relationship between man and nature, reflected in Long’s title Human Nature, I think of the words of Seamus Heaney, in his poem Digging:
‘Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.’
The exhibition is on at The Haunch of Vension until August 20.