Evan Penny: A Survey
by Michael Burtch
Throughout history, the human figure has been the most significant and the most problematical symbol in our visual lexicon. It evokes fear, awe, pathos, mortality and immortality, sexuality, beauty, and all the complex nuances of meaning that lie between. Underlying our fascination for the human figure is the fundamental reason for its power: it reifies, presents, or re-presents our "double", our posed image; it holds up to our gaze the shifting, fragmented mirror of our "selves". It offers an elusive and unstable intersection between the "primal self" and the public self - the persona, the "other" that permeates and constructs our "image" before the ungraspable flux of our primal being. In spite of or perhaps because of the odds against locating the human figure's precise significance in our mediated understanding of existence, the figure is still the basis of obsessive representation.
Evan Penny's works is surrounded by a marvellous silence that permits the viewer to wander about in a complex web of associations and meanings. To attempt to isolate the precise source of its strength is an exercise in futility. The verisimilitude is certainly impressive, but that alone could not sustain this strength. The classical references risk an uncritical accusation of mere sentimentality or worse, of acquiescence to the authority and validation of history. Their formal gestalt and balance, albeit tentative, of their contraposta attitude may be read as an aesthetic ploy, a means whereby our fascination is rooted in traditional aesthetic concerns with beauty, yet these devices, too, dissolve into a swirl of unanswerable questions. Penny has worked hard to neutralize traditional, over-articulated signs, such as narrative gesture and sexuality. What he presents is an invocation of the mute, inexplicable fact of human existence, a presence mediated by socially and culturally defined and constructed identities. The figures are offered up as inexplicable "others", named subjects without subjecthood, yet they reflect back our own projections, our own both exalted and dreaded subjectivity.
Penny's completed works carefully disguise the process of construction, but the process itself is never the less significant. Its significance rests primarily in the attitude assumed by the artist as he mediates between the model and the model's objectification. He relies heavily, but not solely, on the raw visual data presented by his model. The subtle decisions that guide his hand and eye, however, help establish the deeper stratas of interpretation that deliberately confound an easy reading on the surface.
Working from a live model, Penny begins by building a clay figure over an armature. The modelling process is initially a documenting of the model's topography. When the clay has been worked to the extent that it can be forwarded to the next stage, a plaster mould is taken, from which a bondo-fibreglass resin cast is made. The bondo provides a durable yet workable surface into which details can be finely articulated. The polyester figures are impeccably rendered, to reveal in varying degrees every nuance of the surface appearance of the subject, every muscle, vein, flaccid fold, and wrinkle. In the case of Ali, hair has been implanted strand by strand. The only retreat from the startling detail exemplified by Ali is the clearly modelled, shortly cropped hair of all the remaining figures, a concession to the unsculptural quality of hair. Examination of the surfaces reveals an interesting indexing of Penny's working approach in the barely perceptible striations and hatching of the rapid strokes as he works over the surface with rasps. The verity of the detail belies the rapid energy of execution at this stage of the production.
When the bondo figure is completed, a flexible rubber mould capable of recording every minute detail is made and used to cast, in sections, the polyester resin and fibreglass that will make up the final work. Glass eyes are inserted while the work is in the section stage, as is the hardware to secure the piece to its base. The sections are carefully welded together with polyester resin, reworked, primed, and then painted in oils.
The original clay is often re-employed in the variations that follow the initial work. The bronze shadow figures are dramatic reworkings of the "original" to which they relate, and the torsos are salvaged and reworked after the moulding process has, like "time", ravaged their "wholeness". The bronzes, both full figure and torso, are foundry cast under the artist's supervision and finished by him in the studio. They are given a patina, artificially aged, and in the case of Jim Torso, partially painted.
Each figure is constructed in a standing neutral pose, an attitude that reflects being as opposed to doing. The figures are mounted on stands to lift their actual two-thirds or four-fifths life-size stature to eye level. The polyester resin figures, the realistic figures, are painted in flesh tones that range from the hyper-articulated glow of Ali to the deathly pallor of earlier pieces such as Janet. They stand in the classic contraposta, with the weight of the body shifted to accommodate the supporting functional leg while the free leg is employed (like colour and hair treatment) to subtly motivate interpretations of the body's attitude.
The diminutive scale of Penny's work plays a more crucial role than the initial pragmatic practice of working in less than life size would suggest. At eye level on its base, each figure floats between the obvious physicality of its presence and the spectral ambience of representation before us on a mental plane. The less than life scale is in fact the scale in which we appear, at arm's length before a mirror. What we intuit in the presence of these figures is a pictorialized image, a mental representation that seems to short-circuit our conditioned sense of scale and confounds our certainty of the distance and relationship between ourselves as subjects and the ostensibly known "objects" before us. Each figure, particularly the realistic works, has a spectral, phenomenological presence, a co-existence of being and non-being. Its physicality shares with minimalist sculpture a tension between measurable objecthood and relative appearance, conditioned by the transitory nature of perception.
Tied intrinsically to the notion of the mirrored image is the phenomenon of "otherness". In the mirror, our image takes on the characteristic of the other, the self objectified. Otherness arises out of consciousness, consciousness of some thing. Consciousness does not exist without those polarities; like gravity, it takes two bodies, two poles, our locus, ourself, and the other, that which we are not, that which affirms our subjectivity but lies outside of it, beyond it, in our field of being. To mediate between this locus of self and other, to seek out in our solitude a projected sense of identification, of sameness, we spin a web of governing patterns of behaviour, we name, classify, and order our experience. We hide from our estrangement, our deepest desires, within the labyrinth of culture, within our social selves. Penny's "otherness" - these named, mute, still beings - articulate the distance between our subjectivity and the subjectivity of the other. The other is held in our gaze, violated by our natural voyeurism, but remains ultimately impenetrable. We are implored to recognize the precariousness and mutability of these mediating structures.
Mimesis, the duplication or the reflecting back of appearance, has traditionally carried with it the dual purpose of representing or suspending life in the face of our fear of death. From the anxiety of having one's animus or soul captured within an image to the sophisticated methods of mummification, death masks, memorials, and keep-sake photographs, mankind has tried to ward off the imminence of non-being by positing or depositing the concrete signs of his being in objecthood, whether that objecthood is physical or abstracted into a constructed individuated sense of "self".
A form that Penny has employed to great effect is that of the torso as a "finished" work in its own right. The torsos that have been produced with most figures allow Penny to concentrate on the pivotal axis of the body, implying and redefining wholeness and expanding on the possible significance of each piece. One torso variant of Jim, for example, is finished in flesh tones but Jim's torso is missing the penis, evoking conflicting readings between its sense of formal completeness and its associations to the "real" and to the fear of mutilation. Another torso of Jim's shadow has been cast in bronze. The outstretched arm is eerily painted in fleshtones in contrast to the artificially aged bronze of the body. The clash between the real and the ideal is exacerbated by the "Pygmalion" allusions to "real flesh".
The introduction of bronze in concert with the recent male and female groups has allowed Penny to amplify historical references that were latent in the polyester resin works by extracting from the contrasting historical shadow. Jim's "shadow" is based on the Greek fourth-century BC bronze, the Antikythera Paris. The Ali "shadow" derives from the many variations of the historical, the Venus Pudica. The historical allusions in Penny's shadow figures suggest that persona or ideal is an accumulation of memory, a surfeit of collective expectation, of transcendent experience. Their realistic counterparts exist as appearance without overt significance, as unfathomable others into which, or out of which, the projections of our socially constructed ideals can be imposed or extracted. The shadow groupings, the split personalities, objectify those two poles around which individual human consciousness revolves.
Penny probes the issue of gender identity in a subtle yet profound manner, carefully charting a course that deconstructs socially imposed definitions of sexual identity. One of his most consistent practices has been to neutralize, as much as possible, the psychological or gestural signs that posit gender identity.
Penny rendered earlier figures such as Norma with immobile concentration: arms to the side, legs straight and together, the gaze intensely frontal. The nuances of gesture arise from the natural asymmetries of the individual body. Subsequently, he broke this rigidity with the introduction of the contraposta, yet the attitude of figures such as Janet resist the exaggerated sway of the body that is characteristically associated with the women presented as a coy object of the male gaze. Rather, Janet stands matter of factly and relaxed.
Ali, however, charts a different course. Here the figure is loaded with the overused signs of gender identity. Ali is presented as a vision of the contemporary mother earth, a problematic fusion of sacred and profane, ideal and real. Her generous volumes, hyper-articulated flesh tone and physicality, and the inclusion of pubic and cranial hair give her an engaging sense of presence. Her sexuality is partly revealed through her head, its inclination and, in particular, her uplifted gaze and slightly parted lips, yet the attitude also suggests the sacred Christian iconography, the ecstatic gaze. She is stereotyped but not stereotypical. She is both powerful and vulnerable, femme fatale and sacred intercedent. A composite of conflicting visions, she represents the problematical schism between body and spirit that permeates Western thought.
Ali is a work that invites reaction. Penny's response was Jim, and from Jim, Male Shadow Grouping. The shadow grouping offered the means of further deconstructing gender stereotypes through the male image, that, in the hands of a male artist, could be more autobiographic and less prone to be associated, in conventional terms at any rate, with the female as the sole object of the male gaze.
Jim alone is non-heroic, unromantic, literally the next-door neighbour. He is presented as he is, neutralized symbolically and without subjectivity. He is an appearance, a named object upon which, as though in a mirror, we project our own meanings. His silence neither affirms nor contradicts our reading. He is frozen, suspended in time, posed and exposed. Only his topology gives him sexual identity. He is without history.
Jim's shadow, however, signifies authority. He has a history and an identity. He is an active subject, passing judgement, rendering salutation, offering benediction. His outstretched arm is the overloaded sign of Paris the judge, the Caesars, or the male figure on Voyageur I, who signal a greeting (or perhaps a farewell). There he stands, confirmed by and shaping history, secure in his wholeness, acting in the world. Behind him, culled from this ideal type, is his particularized counterpart, his unfathomable but named twin, his other self.
With the Female Shadow Grouping, Penny begins with a reassessment of the overt sexuality and stereotyping of Ali. His Ali III and Ali IV revert to the sculpted hair, restrained flesh tones, a more generalized modelling of the flesh with more attention to the volumes and planes than surface detail. The contraposta and facial expressions are neutralized. Her gaze is direct and engaging.
In the Female Shadow Grouping, Ali's bronze shadow is a classical composite which alludes to the Venus Pudica, or to the numerous Eve variants of the Venus, which share a self-conscious modesty, a coy awareness of being the object of the male gaze, or, in the Eve variant, a covering of her nakedness. This modesty is tempered by the corollary, a knowledge of carnality. Ali's shadow also exudes the earth mother voluptuousness of an Aristide Maillol sculpture.
The polyester figure accompanying the bronze, Ali III, is assertive without being forceful, showing no sign of self-consciousness. Like Jim and earlier figures such as Janet, the new Ali variant simply exists.The Ali with outstretched arm subverts, in a significant way, the sexual stereotype of passivity. The arm is not meant to appropriate "maleness" or authority, but to assert will to action and self-determination.
At the conceptual centre of the grouping of Jim and Ali is the obvious reference to the mythological judgement of Paris, which, as spectators, we are summoned upon to re-enact. As Paris was called upon to select the fairest from the three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, so we are cast into the role of both the judge and the judged. Ali, Jim, and their shadow groupings elicit from us a range of conflicting socially constructed views of the male and female and their roles and relationships. We are compelled to question the codes, the archetypes, and the authorities we rely upon to weigh our judgement of self and of the object of our projections and desires. This is the fundamental significance of Evan Penny's work: its consummate questioning of the shifting grid upon which the tangents and intersections of collective or private memories and beliefs are imposed.
Michael Burtch, 1987