Self, Self Stretch, Michael, 2008–2010
There is something photographic about Penny’s sculptures, and not only because of their transitions from the sculptural to the twodimensional. Their precise realistic quality also leads us to believe that they are the result of a mechanical process of reproduction. Yet until 2007 the artist produced all of his works by hand. He modelled each original form in clay; a completely conventional method. Nevertheless, since 2000 the artistic reflection on the concept of the human being generated through media had been the focus of his artistic work. Thus for Penny it was only a small mental step to begin considering methods of three-dimensional reproduction in his sculptural works. He hoped to resolve a question that had posed itself for quite some time.
We have become accustomed to viewing ourselves through photographs in life-specific situations with all of their momentary modes of expression. How might one succeed in representing this experience three-dimensionally?
It made sense that new three-dimensional digital technologies should be able to help produce a sculpture that functioned more like a snapshot. The possibilities afforded by laser scanning and three-dimensional photography seemed promising. Both technologies capture the sitting or standing body within seconds; the one with a laser beam, the other with a series of images recorded simultaneously, which are then assembled together using a computer program. After being reworked with an image-editing program, the data gathered in this way can be used to produce a rough replica of the body.
In line with his desire to evoke the spirit of “the photographic moment”, the artist initially applied this method to his process in 2008. He made laser scans of his own body, and in 2010, Michael Short, the creative director of his New York gallery, also volunteered to serve as a model. Scanning directly from living subjects allowed the artist to come closer to creating a human snapshot. But additional artistic interventions were required in order to achieve a good result.
As was the case with his exclusively handcrafted sculptures, Penny placed a great deal of value on making it possible to experience the features of media images three-dimensionally in the sculpture. To this end he manipulated the scanned image data using an image-editing program. He used this process to anamorphically distort Self from 2008, his first self-portrait to be created in this way, as well as Michael from 2010. He also produced an elongated self-portrait, Self Stretch, in 2009. For Penny, however, an additional intervention was still necessary to achieve resolution. The inaccurate and generalised milled hard-foam models produced from the digital files needed to be significantly reworked. To do this Penny made a mould and cast them in clay in order to be able to rework the surface by hand. He spent approximately 100 hours on each sculpture, reinterpreting the form and refining the details lost during the scanning process. In this way he succeeded in producing far more precise sculptural snapshots of living people than ever before. According to the artist, “This is the first time … that I have the possibility of making ‘photo’ realist sculpture”.