Human, all too human
by Gary Michael Dault
No matter where you look in the downtown Toronto studio of sculptor Evan Penny, there is always somebody looking back at you.
There are faces everywhere. Big, big faces. Like the monumentally scaled visage of Libby [L. Faux], a free-standing, low-relief sculpture of a woman's head and shoulders five feet high and four feet wide. Libby is startlingly, almost off-puttingly real.
Her aqueous eyes, which are nearly as big as headlights and which stare implacably into the middle distance, seem wondrously, frighteningly alive. Her hair, her eyebrows, her eyelashes are as real as our own - but huge. Her flesh, a little lined, a little pouchy, is convincing - except that there seems to be too much of it and it feels way too close to you. Her lipstick looks recently applied. All in all, Libby is an overwhelming, almost hallucinatory presence.
She looks like a photograph come to life, a photograph that, unhappy with flatness, has burgeoned out into space like some hard hologram you can walk around and inspect. And indeed, the photographic associations Libby generates are extended by the presence in the studio of another giant Libby, this time all in tones of grey: a black-and-white Libby instead of a coloured one. And there are photographs of Libby too. Well, okay, not pho tos of Libby the woman, but rather of Libby the sculpture. But given the sculpture's disarming verisimilitude, the photos of it look as much like a real woman as the giant sculpture does.
A good deal of Evan Penny's art is addressed to whatever goes on in that strange gap between reality and arti fice. "The problem," Penny says, "was to situate the piece [i.e. Libby] somewhere between the way we see each other in real time and space, and the way we've come to see ourselves in photographs."
Libby is modelled from a woman whose name is Libby Faux (which she pronounces "fox") - a wonderfully appropriate moniker for somebody central to Evan Penny's continuing researches into the nature of reality observed and artifice achieved (or, come to think of it, is it artifice observed and reality achieved?).
Libby - or, as Penny puts it, "the Libby project" - has taken three years. Libby Faux herself has expended something close to 400 hours as Penny's model.
First, Penny took Libby's photograph - as a sort of reference point. It's still there on the studio wall, a charming, laughing portrait of what is in fact a much warmer and prettier woman than the one embodied in the final sculptures. After which came the gruelling hours of actual sitting and modelling in clay ("If I hadn't looked at her so much, so intently, if I hadn't been so precise," Penny says, "I would have got her right - that is, she might have looked more like her photograph.")
From the clay figure, Penny then made a cast of epoxy resin, resin into which he had already mixed skin-toned colour ("I didn't want pigment just lying on the sculpture's surface.") And after the mould, came the exacting and exhausting embellishments by which the resinous Libby was to be coaxed into realness: the laborious colouring of the skin, the fabricating and installation of those remarkable eyes, the placement of Libby's strands of hair, each one individually drilled, implanted and glued in place. And eyebrows. And eyelashes ("Eyelashes are just strands of hair cut shorter," Penny notes). And finally, there was Libby. "Libby actually carries more information than the human face does," Penny points out. Which is perhaps why she seems more than real, super-real.
On the other hand, much of Evan Penny's newer work involves a series of sculpted faces that offer what he insists is "substantially less information than the human face provides." In these recent works, a series called No One-in Particular, Penny has lavished his usual, achingly laborious efforts on a number of head-and-shoul der personages, which, although they look utterly specific and disturbingly real, are, in fact, cunningly persua sive composite-collections of features and characteristics harvested from here and there and marshalled into entirely fictitious characters.
One is a sallow-faced dude with black hair, wearing a black T-shirt (Penny lifted his widow's peak- just the widow's peak - from a fashion model in Vanity Fair magazine).
Another is a rather doughy-looking blond guy with a red T-shirt and a nondescript patterned shirt over it "Someone had a mouth like that," Penny says, "but I forget now where I got it. His shirt, though, is from the Salvation Army."
There is a sandy-haired woman who looks a bit like the blond guy. "Actually she's his sister,"Penny says happily. "She's basically the same face, but with a wig" - one of the small economies inherent in the androgynous nature of both figures.
Not the least remarkable thing about these sculpted strangers is the way the viewer starts saddling them with characteristics, personalities, even histories. "It makes you aware of just how much we speculate on the character of people on photographs, even people we don't know at all," Penny notes. "We create fictions when we look at photographs."
Each of Penny's new anonymous creations comes with a carefully taken colour photograph the same size as the sculpture. And what's weird is the way the photograph, even though there is clearly something odd about it, seems even more "real" than the sculpture right beside it. We're simply used to photographs telling the truth. Or at least providing the new trumped-up truths of fantasy.
This scavenging of Penny's - his picking up a lip here, a chin there - seems almost Frankensteinian, an impression driven home even more saliently when I notice, on a nearby table, a petri dish full of what are clearly urethane eyes in the making. Indeed, Penny's almost alarming ability to trade in the sculptural uncanny has resulted in his being much in demand creating special effects for the movies. It was Penny, as a freelancer employed by the Toronto firm of FX Smith, who helped to fabricate some of the figures in the film X-Men (including the bodacious blue Mystique character), and Ethan Hawke's withered arm in Snow Falling on Cedars. He even worked on JFK's bloody assassinated corpse in Oliver Stone's JFK.
But what interests Evan Penny is the uncanny of the every day. "Any kind of shift away from the normal creates monsters," he points out: the fact that Libby is really big, for example.
The absorbing part of all this, for Penny, is the way the uncanny is "unavoidable" as a byproduct of what he calls "the intense observational process." Which is to say, the sheer density of prolonged looking, the selecting and organizing of detail over time, the more or less hopeless pursuit of the subject's reality, and how that reality inevitably slips away under your hands.
"As you gain more and more control," Penny admits ruefully, "you lose control at another level. You have to accept that, and go with it."
Penny's latest project is so bizarre, so labour-intensive, so morphologically subtle, it's nightmarish even to describe.
What he has done is to create a huge blurred sculpture of Libby. He photographed the Libby sculpture, computerized it into a blurred, multi-exposed image (wherein Libby now has six eyes side by side and really shaky outlines). And then set about to sculpt the blurred photo. The blurring, as Penny points out, has compromised the sculpting process and vice versa. Talk about the monstrous, the uncanny!
"We accept the monstrous in photographs," Penny points out coolly, "but to pull it into three-dimensional space problematizes the 'easy read' of the blurred image."
Can Penny pull it off? "It is impossible, so you know you're going to fail.
"But," he adds quickly, "you also don't know yet the ways in which you're going to succeed."
Gary Michael Dault, 2001