Evan Penny: Re Figured – Foreword
A neologism is required in order to do justice to the Canadian artist’s oeuvre. Evan Penny: Re Figured is the title of the large-scale exhibition being mounted at the Kunsthalle Tübingen, the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, MARCA (Museo delle Arti Catanzaro), and finally at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in the artist’s hometown. In the first instance Re Figured stands for Penny’s return to figuration. In the 1970s, when he was creating figures based on live nude models as a student at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, figurative art was seen as an antiquated form. Formalism, which emphasised the autonomy of form and colour separate from any representative content, as promoted by the New York–based art critic, Clement Greenberg, constituted the principal trend in sculptural art. Re Figured also makes reference to a redefinition of figuration. Penny, born in 1953, sets himself apart from attempts to capture everyday life or social reality, as did older representatives of a new sculptural figuration, such as George Segal or Duane Hanson. “I’ve never seen myself as a realist”, admits the Canadian sculptor. Then what does his figurative art depict, and what is his intention?
In early 1998, during a visit to the exhibition Artificial: Figuracions Contemporanies at the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona, Evan Penny reformulated his artistic stance. It set the tone for the phase of work he embarked on then, which continues to this day, and which is receiving its most extensive appraisal to date in this exhibition. The theme of the exhibition in Barcelona was artificiality, which is inherent in any attempt to reproduce reality. The display of large-format portrait photographs by Thomas Ruff alongside sculptural masks by Stefan Hablützel made a particularly deep impression on Penny. He was won over by the suggestive power of Ruff’s images, which document the lives and the stories of individual people. In Hablützel’s works, however, the photographs faded into shallow, implausible after-images that didn’t hold up against the physical presence of the sculptural portraits. However, on further examination, these masks also lost their credibility because of their dissimilarity to living people. Torn between a sculptural force and a claim to photographic authenticity, Penny discovered the problem that would occupy him from this point onwards: the intermediate space between twodimensional visual media and three-dimensional sculpture. When asked to describe this current phase of work in one sentence, the artist replied: “I try to situate my sculpture somewhere between the way we perceive each other in real time and space and the way we perceive ourselves and each other in an image.” Hybrid beings emerge in these worlds, whose claims to authenticity unavoidably overwhelms us as viewers: by virtue of the photographic precision of their surfaces and their physical penetration of our habitat. Their anomalies – twists, stretches, compressions, fractured dimensions and colour errors – are able to engender the enjoyable horror of a freak show at a fair. And yet we are forced to recognise that we are confronted at first hand with the deformities of the human image in our media age. Each sculpture represents a materialised mental experiment that the artist himself describes as follows: “What would happen if I take a distortion of the human body that is ‘normalised’ in an image context, that we might assume belongs exclusively to the image world, and bring that into the space we physically occupy?” The approximately forty works being presented in the European-Canadian touring exhibition supply us with the answer: a strong emotional reaction full of abysmal horror and insatiable fascination.
The fact that this concentrated survey of Penny’s creative work, from the past ten to twelve years, including several early works that led up to this phase, could succeed at all is primarily due to the artist himself. With his typical perseverance and precision, it was he who made the crucial contribution to the realisation of the exhibition and this catalogue. The success of the project is also attributable to the excellent collaboration among the museum teams in Tübingen, Salzburg, Catanzaro and Toronto and the generous support of the approximately twenty-five lenders. The temporary congregation of Penny’s works in their respective collections undoubtedly makes for a fantastic experience, also made palpable by the wealth of illustrations in this accompanying publication. Moreover, due to the expertise of the contributing authors we have succeeded in affording a keen insight into the artist’s development. In a conversation with Evan Penny, David Moos, curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, gives the artist a chance to speak for himself. Daniel J. Schreiber, curator at the Kunsthalle Tübingen, describes how Penny’s sculptures originate and discusses the ideas on which the individual groups of works are based. Alberto Fiz, artistic director of the MARCA, situates the sculptor’s art-historical approach in its historical context. Veit Ziegelmaier, curator at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, provides an explanatory overview of Penny’s work series represented in this exhibition. The publication also provides biographical and bibliographical information as well as an illustrated, chronological index of a representative selection of more than one hundred works that elaborately demonstrates this phase of his work.
Daniel J. Schreiber
Geschäftsführender Kurator, Kunsthalle Tübingen
Direktor, Museum der Moderne Salzburg
Direttore artistico, Museo delle Arti Catanzaro
Michael and Sonja Koerner Director, and CEO, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto