Close Encounters of a Corporeal Kind
An interview with Evan Penny
by Robert Enright
The following interview was done in 2017 in two parts: on January 19 in the artist’s Toronto studio and by phone on March 10.
Robert Enright: In his essay Michael Short talks about the way that your sculpture “unsettles” the viewer. Is the notion of unsettling something that interests you?
Evan Penny: Yes, I think of it as a starting point. It is that moment of uncertainty when you encounter something you assume you understand, but that takes you someplace unexpected. That feature has been in my work from the very beginning and pointedly so over the last fifteen years. For me the unsettling has to do with the discrepancy between the bodily and the intellectual response. The bodily response is primal, visceral and immediate and it precedes the intellectual process. The intellectual response is to contextualize that experience. One of the ambitions or functions of art is to set up a certain set of expectations but to satisfy them in an unexpected way. If my pieces do this to me as I am working on them, that gives me a sense that I am on the right track, and that the viewer might have that same experience.
RE: Michael Short also writes that you ‘make sculptures of the human body but not figurative sculptures.’ Is that a significant distinction?
EP: It’s an interesting one to contemplate and it has been a conscious idea in my work since the mid-90s. The basic question I asked with the early work was, “How can I be a figurative sculptor and a contemporary artist at the same time?” The weight of history is particularly problematic when working with figurative sculpture, as it is tied so implicitly to the pre-modern. As a defense against that history, I retreated to a process that invested very conscientiously in the direct and sustained observation of the model and, in a way, that retreat brought me closer to the idea of the body, to the immediacy of that experience.
By the early 1990’s and certainly with the Skin Drawings, the narrative was all about the question: “What do we mean when we say ‘figure’ and what do we mean when we say ‘body’? Why was it okay to make work that is ‘body based’ but not okay to make work that was ‘figurative’? When a work is ‘body based’, is it not also ‘figurative’ and vice versa? Why are we making these distinctions?” There was a time in the 1980s where these questions resonated, and for good reason. However, I eventually came to understand that these were false opposites. That all body based works are figurative. That the ‘body’ is the phenomena or the field, and the ‘figure’ is the representation or the understanding of that field. The point I am trying to make and that both Michael and Alexander Nagel point to, is that one way to look at it is to say we move from the pre-verbal to the verbal. We move from the body to the representation of the body.
RE: When I was in your studio you hadn’t yet finished the Self Portrait after Géricault's Fragments Anatomiques piece, but you were looking at his morgue studies. While you were developing the piece, how did your contemplation of the three studies help you render the sculpture in three-dimensions?
EP: The fact that his studies depict the still life from three distinct viewpoints, gave me access to enough information to imagine a three-dimensional sculptural interpretation. Just looking at the one image would not show for instance, that one of the legs had already been dissected, or that the leg was bent, or the configuration of the cloth behind the shoulder. So some basic elements of the composition that allow you now to walk around it and feel its accuracy to the original composition wouldn’t have been possible if I’d had only the one viewpoint.
RE: The other thing that was intriguing in relation to your source was that you were looking at a small study which you then shifted into a completely different scale?
EP: Yes. From three small, gestural paintings I was planning to make a large, highly particularized sculptural object. I still did not feel I had enough information, so as a starting point I decided to do a small model version by making bodycasts of my own limbs in the desired positions. Given that the large version would now be derived from these bodycasts, it became obvious in short order that this was becoming a self- portrait of a sort. Another quite striking and unexpected feature was that the finished, life-size bodycast model appeared to be diminished and smaller than life-size, while the large version, which in its unfinished state in clay seemed too monumentally large, once completed appeared smaller and more connected to human scale. As Alexander pointed out, it’s almost as if I had to go larger in order to get the more direct connection to it as a human-scaled bodily experience. And that only happens when you are contemplating it. If you happen to be looking at someone else viewing these objects, the scale shifts again and the largeness of the sculpture is quite apparent. This says a lot about the subjectivity of perception and how we register experiences.
RE: My sense is the Hanging Torso moves towards monumentality more than anything else in the exhibition.
EP: Yes, it does. It’s a monumental fragment and there’s a challenge in that. On the one hand, it is just a big fragment of a sculpture and on the other, it has hair and some of the qualities of skin. The surface is as much about flesh and wounds and body blemishes as it is about the passage of time corroding and breaking an idealized figure in stone. When the blemishes in the stone are represented as bruises in flesh, the association shifts from the weathered statue to the vulnerable body, and that connection to the body brings the monumental object into human scale again. One of the ways I think of this is to imagine the vision-blurring, super-up-closeness that an infant has to the body of an adult. It’s a kind of proximity without a larger context of space, or even who that body is. I was really hoping the Hanging Torso could convey that pre-conscious, pre-verbal sense of proximity and relationship. Hanging it upside down enhances that, as does taking it off the pedestal. It no longer functions like a classical torso fragment. Hanging from a chain, you could think of an industrial quarry yard where the stone is being hoisted from one place to another, but for me, it makes an association with a cocoon or a chrysalis. It carries that idea of metamorphosis, of moving into another state, a state of becoming rather than disintegrating. The idea of hanging it upside down came as a fortuitous accident. At the end of the casting process, I needed to hang the piece in order to de-mold the finished silicone sculpture from the rubber. As I peeled the rubber away, revealing the torso, I thought ‘Oh, my god, this is like the flaying of Marsyas.” Seeing it hanging upside down, I realized this was the transformative feature needed.
RE: The other connection the hanging torso makes is to the broken, damaged and, as you just mentioned, to the flayed body. That idea has been rendered in paintings by Rembrandt and Soutine.
EP: Yes. It wasn’t clear at the beginning of this project the extent to which flaying and drawing and quartering would be a functioning part of the narrative thread, but it certainly has become a strong current that one can follow. Fortuitous sub-narratives have also emerged such as the story of Marcoantonio Bragadin, a Venetian military officer who was flayed and then drawn and quartered. Unearthed by Michael Short, the Bragadin incident was a part of the Venetian narrative and it is one of the reasons that Titian, whose studio was in the same quarter where this church sits, did his painting The Flaying of Marsyas. The particular sculpture that I referenced for my Marsyas piece is in the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul. I see that Greco-Roman Marsyas image as a proto-crucifixion image. So while the pieces in this show were all conceived independently, there are many threads that have emerged to connect them.
RE: The fact that the Hanging Torso is the first thing you see in the installation in the Chiesa di San Samuele raises the question of the viewer’s engagement in the narrative of the exhibition. The crucifix in the church makes an important connection with Marsyas because, as Alexander Nagel points out, the crucified Christ is the Christian version of Marsyas. Then the two self-portraits connect to the use of your own body in the Gericault castings. So all the bodies are brought together as you move through the exhibition. I assume that is the operating logic of the encounter?
EP: The basic premise comes back to Michael’s title, “Ask your Body”. This could be neatly summed up by saying: “If in doubt, ask your body. If still in doubt, ask your experience and if still in doubt, ask your culture”. This suggests that the first encounter is through the body, then contextualized through one’s personal experience and then further through one’s cultural history. So that’s the idea. The Hanging Torso and the old Venetian mirrors that have been placed on either side of the entrance represent that moment of first encounter where your experience is through a bodily response. The Young and Old self-portrait sculptures and photographs represent those reflections through one’s personal experience, and the three additional historically derived sculptures represent that reflection through one’s deeper cultural history. As one moves deeper into the church, this narrative is enacted. The last piece to be seen is the Homage to Holbein, which is somewhat separated by a dividing wall. It faces the altar, where I have also built a long and narrow Shaker style bench for the viewer to sit and contemplate.
RE: Alexander Nagel quotes you in saying you are involved in a “flaying of realism”. Do you want to flesh out that idea?
EP: (laughs) I don’t remember saying that, but I like it! I’m sure it is a good observation. I’m not quite sure I’ve parsed it out yet. But yes, my work does endeavor to engage “realism” in a deconstructive way.
RE: Well, inside the story of Marsyas, it makes you Apollo. You’re the god and not the victim of the gods.
EP: That’s right. I am also Marsyas, The hubris of Marsyas is, in turn, the hubris of the artist playing god.
RE: When we talked in your studio in January you said these pieces are much more personal at the same time that they are more impersonal. I’m still wrapping my head around that contradictory recognition.
EP: They’re more impersonal because they come from somebody else and from another time. But what allows them to be more personal is that they are emotionally supercharged. The original artwork is giving that to me and then it is altered and amplified through what I’m doing. I’m not creating that intimacy or that heightened emotion but I’m inheriting it. This allows me both the connection and the critical distance I need for the work. I am able to identify and doubt simultaneously. My work has always been very resistant to narrative and I’ve avoided the tableaus or narrative frameworks that so often are expected of figurative work. I don’t see it as a deficit in my work, although some people do. It is one of the arguments I have always made with my work.
RE: Was your resistance to narrative a determining factor in how you came to the making of sculpture when you first began?
EP: Yes. Through art school and as a young artist, coming out of Late Modernism I loved working with the human body and figurative sculpture but I didn’t relate to the narrative tradition. I knew I was not interested in making statues that told stories about historical or contemporary themes for that matter. I just felt the whole historical narrative framework for figurative sculpture was no longer relevant or available to me. So as I suggested before, I retreated to the model and the body itself. I stripped the figures of narrative gesture, and focused on intimate observation. I adopted frameworks that might be more associated with abstract modernist approaches, such as working in series, or with fragments, or narrative associations that build through juxtaposition and external influence. It took the 80s, with the Feminist Movement and the discourse around the body, to enable me to bring more clarity to the question of the ‘figure’ versus the ‘body’. The more I focused on that idea, the more space I had to ask, “Who are we now ?” and how can that be expressed in material form? Similarly, I am not interested in doing portraits, but I am interested in the question of portraiture. I’m not going out and looking for the most interesting people or looking for celebrities or working up romantic or distilled visions of who this or that person might be. For me, it is more a question of what is this thing called portraiture? How is it possible to do that? And in my case, how does the pervasive influence of photography and film in this realm inform and effect my understanding and the kind of objects I can make? What can I say in sculpture that connects to that? That’s really how my process works. So, for instance, when I work with real subjects or create fictitious ones, or shift from the L. Faux project to the No One-In Particular series, to the Backs, the Stretches and the Anamorphs, you could say they are all exploring different aspects of portraiture and they are all playing with questions of how do we imagine ourselves now, and how can I make representations of these ideas? With this new work, I think that sensibility or orientation is much the same. Now I could be seen to be doing portraits of historic works in the same way that I was doing portraits of ‘people’. Approaching them from these tangents opens enough space for me to feel I can say something.
RE: You told me you were drawing on everything you know to make this work. Have you found out something you didn’t know in that draw?
EP: I don’t know yet. I think what I was suggesting was that in order to change ones work, one needs to draw on everything one knows. The idea of making new work implicitly suggests that you have to drop something you have done in order to move into something new. In fact, that has not been my experience. I find myself going back into all of my history, which really means going back into myself and pulling out the threads that allow me to move forward. One has to reclaim all those elements in order to come back into a relationship with what one can do next. I experienced that in a very literal way when I did the L. Faux project, which was the beginning of the photo-referential works. Prior to that I had done the early Figures, the Skin Drawings, the Monumental sculptures, the early Anamorphs, and the special effects work in the film industry. It is clear to me that all those precedents came together to inform that new phase of work. That’s all to say I’m starting to feel more confident with this new body of work.
RE: It’s interesting that if you ask your body, it will eventually tell you everything you need to know.