Evan Penny: Re Figured – Production Process
If it were possible to replicate human beings technically, they would presumably look like Evan Penny’s sculptures. They portray the human body in its true colours, down to the last hair, with all of its wrinkles, skin blemishes and characteristic features. And yet their artificiality is obvious. Alienation techniques such as compressions, stretching, distortions or colour errors are reminiscent of features of photography, television, process-colour printing and digital image editing. They convey the impression of being the products of innovative media able to generate three-dimensional images. Yet the impression is deceptive. While the theme of Penny’s work is the image of the human produced by media technology, this in no way means that he produces portraits of human beings with the aid of this technology. Rather, it is Penny’s preeminently refined, traditional craftsmanship that enables him to produce these works.
His work is always preceded by his consideration of the question to be pursued and which model or approach would best suit this purpose. This varies greatly from project to project. If, as was the case for L. Faux, Murray or Shelley, it involves the problem of rendering an actual person realistically, Penny transfers the impressions gained by examining a living model directly into the sculptural object. For other projects, for example the Backs, the artist also makes reference to real people, yet here he is concerned with producing a sculptural-photographic hybrid. He therefore chooses a blend of body casts and photographic source material. He also often sets himself the goal of creating fictitious characters, such as in the projects No One – In Particular, Stretch or Anamorph. These works are then based on various photographic sources and above all on the artist’s power of imagination. It is not until his recent works that Penny has begun to use new technical replication processes. For Self, Self Stretch, Michael, Old Self and Young Self, for instance, he captures living bodies with the use of a laser scanner or 3-D photography. He then manipulates the data he has obtained with an image-editing program and uses it to control an automated milling machine, which then carves a raw object out of a block of hard foam. For other projects, for example Female Stretch or Jim Revisited, he applies the same processes to his own earlier works.
Regardless of how the raw object is obtained, the process of freely modelling wax-based, nondrying clay plays the primary role for Penny. He either fashions the figure freehand, directly in clay, or he produces a clay cast of the raw objects that he has obtained by making body casts or with the aid of computer-controlled milling. Either way Penny shapes or transforms his figures meticulously by hand using simple sculpting tools. The sculptural figure and all of the surface details, such as veins, pores and the networks of lines on the skin, are applied in this manner. The clay figure is then brushed with a coat of urethane rubber. After it sets, a second layer of plaster or synthetic resin is applied, which forms a hard protective sheath. This produces a negative mould that is so flexible that it can even depict undercuts, and at the same time so dimensionally stable that it cannot deform. This mould is designed in multiple parts so that it can be removed from the clay, and later from the silicone cast. The raw object made out of clay is destroyed when the mould is removed.
The casing obtained in this way can now be used for the artist’s intended silicone sculpture. To achieve this, Penny brushes several thin layers of silicone into the negative mould. He uses pigments to colour each layer of this transparent paste in varying shades. He also carefully paints details onto each layer, such as scars, moles, eczema, acne and other skin alterations. This produces approximately one-centimetrethick, multilayered silicone skin. A layer of synthetic resin is finally applied to this, which, after it has dried, constitutes the hard interior core of the hollow body. Reinforcing the larger pieces with wood and aluminium rods provides added stability. In its translucency and sense of depth, the silicone surface bears a striking resemblance to human skin. The artist now makes several colour adjustments to the silicone surface. The individual hairs are implanted with needles modified specifically for this purpose, and the custommade plastic eyes are inserted, which he makes himself. Provided the artist does not want to portray the person in the nude, clothing is also sewn and fitted. As different as Penny’s project are, and as varied as his works appear in relation to their human models, they are always the result of a painstaking sequence of artisanal steps, from modelling in clay and casting in silicone to outfitting his sculptures with accessories.
Daniel J. Schreiber