Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays

reviews and essays

Evan Penny:
L. Faux and No One - In Particular

by Xandra Eden

There is a long and complex history of photography that straddles the line between documentation and fictive scene. As early as 1840, French photographer Hippolyte Bayard used the camera to fake his own death-by-drowning. In recent years, an increasing number of artists from Tina Barney to Jeff Wall, and from James Casebere to Oliver Boberg - have toyed with our susceptibility to perceive the photograph as straight documentation.


Canadian artist Evan Penny's L. Faux (2000), a series of portraits of a middle-aged woman, together with his recent composite portraits No One - In Particular (2001-02), disrupt our methods of comprehending two-dimensional media and question photography's propriety as a representational medium. Through hyper-realistic sculptures and their corresponding photographs, Penny examines the terrain between the real and the replica.

Penny has long produced eerily realistic figurative sculptures. Works such as his early Janet (1980) and the much later Murray (1998) appear as if they will come to life at any moment. Janet is just three-quarters life-size, slightly too small to be entirely convincing. Her scaled-down proportions combined with the fine detailing of her features produce an optical fluctuation in the work - at one moment we perceive it as an inert object, at another mutable. The situation denies us a sense of resolve, and it is precisely this contradiction that holds our attention.


The intense observation encouraged by Penny's work is brought about not only by the artist's skillful modelling, but also by his careful dissection of the act of viewing. For L. Faux, Penny carries his analysis of visual perception into the field of photography. Inspired by a 1998 exhibition of contemporary figuration at the Museum d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona that included photographic portraits by Thomas Ruff and sculptural portraits by Stephan Hablutzel, Penny developed L. Faux as a project that would merge sculpture with photography.

For the sculptures (constructed from epoxy resin, pigment and hair), Penny incorporates realistic sculptural techniques with a disturbingly flat re-figuration of the human face. The works are realized in colour, black and white, and white monochrome. They project minimally into three-dimensional space, accomplishing the visual effect of a full bust if viewed frontally. The accompanying to-scale photographs imitate a standard head shot and test the conformance of the sculptures to the language of photography.


In his most recent work No One - In Particular , Penny uses hyper-real special effects of the film industry to create composite portraits. Amalgamations of facial characteristics from a variety of sources, the Frankenstein-like stares and oversized heads of the sculptures, (approximately one and one-half times life-size) convey an attitude of listlessness and indifference. Also shown with accompanying photographs, these ciphers seem to anticipate our arrival, as if our presence will fill them with a sense of identity.

Through this new body of work, Penny points to the discrepancy between the visual information we believe we see and what actually exists in space. He casts a surreal light on the mundane, causing us to re-evaluate the manner in which we differentiate our encounters with reality and artifice in daily life. Penny's questioning of the viability of our concept of reality is more optimistic than cynical; encouraging a rediscovery of the world around us in all its dimensions and thrilling detail, rather than relegating us to a world of simulacra.

Xandra Eden, 2002