Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays


Backs, 2003–2008

The people portrayed in the series Backs are real. Their first names are mentioned in the titles: Back of Norb, Back of Jay, Back of Richard, Back of Danny, Back of Kelly. Back of Evan is the artist himself, and among the series of male portraits there is also a female: Back of Martha. A feature shared by these sculptural, head-and-shoulder portraits is that they turn away from us, towards the wall. It is not until one views them from the side that one sees that their faces become progressively flatter and are eventually reduced to a level plane. In contrast, the backs of their heads and shoulders arch out sculpturally toward the viewer. Without clear faces to help differentiate them they resemble one another with their close-cropped heads. This loss of the facial signifier forces the viewer to look for difference on the margins, in the silhouette, the skin, the hair. Their similarity might also cause us to forget that they depict real people, as form takes precedence. Abstraction and figuration blend without a clear boundary. The Backs suspend the contradiction between realism and formalism, which was long considered insurmountable. This theme becomes particularly evident in a variation of Back of Danny in which Penny dispensed with trying to give the portrait a lifelike appearance with the application of silicone, pigments and hair. Rather the piece, cast in bronze with implanted metal beard stubble, presents the viewer with a free play of light and shadow on its polished surface.