Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays


Style Icons of a Manipulated Reality

“Ideas too are a life and a world”.
     —Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799)

If one was faced with the task of having to describe Evan Penny’s oeuvre in one word, one could perhaps aptly call it “unbelievable”. This stems in part from the unbelievable mimetic precision and attention to detail with which he meticulously renders the human form as a sculptural manifestation with skin and (real human) hair. The body with all of its individual features – its pores, tiny hairs, wrinkles, moles, skin blemishes, veins, tendons and muscles. One is inevitably amazed, in much the same way as when one views exhibits in waxwork museums or historical collections of medical moulages.

It also stems, however, from the fact that Penny has deliberately used techniques to alienate and aggravate in his representations: he has distorted and stretched his figures, flattened their profiles; he has changed and multiplied their dimensions and had them flow in all directions. Occasionally he colourfully stains them like misprints. In spite of the mimetic references mentioned above, these techniques ultimately make it impossible for the viewer to perceive what he or she has seen as being true. Admiration is joined by astonishment, and thus Penny’s work oscillates between the real and the unreal, the actual and the conceivably possible, between illusion and reality, and it is precisely this paradox on which its fascination and significance are based.

The term “hyperrealistic sculpture” can safely be applied to Penny’s work in the literal sense, unlike to the work of someone like Duane Hanson, for instance, because Penny not only reproduces an exaggerated reality in order to construct a social critique, but effectively goes beyond the means of a purely photorealistic depiction, reflecting this in terms of form and extending it through the potential of easily manipulated digital photography.

It is no surprise that Penny – like his fellow artist Ron Mueck, incidentally, whose mimetic work and technique have had a lasting influence on his artistic development – was active in the production of artificial special effects and worked as a make-up artist for big Hollywood productions.

Backs, a group of works originating from between 2004 and 2005, clearly demonstrates that Penny is not first and foremost concerned with producing conventional portraits. Here he presents larger-than-life busts of various people, including himself, as dismissive back views of nudes whose fronts are oriented towards the wall. Their individuality is only indicated by the physiognomic details of the shoulder area and the back of the head, which usually go unnoticed, the individual features of the skin, and the hair, provided there is any. The face, which is regarded as the unmistakable and identifying expression of a person, is not only not visible, it has not even been fleshed out to begin with; indeed, it is virtually cropped, which does not become discernible until one has viewed the frustratingly shallow profile. Thus the detailed portrayal acquires something eerily alienating, for the lack of a face gives the impression of physical disability.1 This impression is compounded by the way the busts are presented, with their metallic border at the lower edge cropping the body, as well as the way they have been hung hovering on the wall, which dispenses with a pedestal. Due to the lack of a frame, the section of the body being portrayed becomes a fragmented torso, an effect reminiscent of Robert Gober’s leg pieces, which he presents in a similar way, as isolated limbs apparently protruding from the wall.

This is also the case in the monumental figure, Large Murray, from 2008, which has no pedestal and whose hands and lower body seem to disappear into the floor. Kenneth E. Silver compared the detached, ostentatious, lifelike figure with depictions of Christ as a “Man of Sorrows”, who is generally portrayed in a three-quarter-length portrait.2 Even if Murray actually exists as a person, his representation, elaborately staged as a monument and literally revealing the naked and unadorned truth, becomes, despite its dimensions, the apparently vulnerable representative of a non-idealised, ordinary human being with whom most viewers are otherwise not familiar.

Penny plays with this phenomenon in his series No One – In Particular, produced in two sections, in which he created naturalistically formed busts of bland-eyed, clothed men and women from everyday life, viewed from the front. But in fact these are imaginary figures and constructs of reality created by the artist. In part one of the series, produced between 2001 and 2005, Penny deals with the dualism between sameness and difference. His technique was as follows: he created a finished sculpture of an imaginary person that stood as an autonomous artwork in the early stage of the series. Based on the original bust, he produced a cast that in a subsequent modelling process was altered in such a way that it resulted in a new manifestation whose cast in turn served as a model for the next figure. He repeated this process a number of times, with the shared underlying principle in each case being the same units of measurement and distance between the eyes and the mouth, their development being based on the same matrix.

In contrast, each of the sculptures in the second part of the series, which he produced between 2004 and 2007, is an individual conglomeration comprised of visual impressions that Penny melded into a holistic figure, which in this form has no clearly identifiable model. In today’s age of increasingly popular plastic surgery and partial successes in genetic engineering, this artificially engendered individuality, consisting of clichés, creates a bitter aftertaste and reveals a critical undertone on the part of the artist. His approach brings to mind the far more radical implementation of these ideas by the artist ORLAN, who as far as practicable has stylised herself into a work of art by having surgery performed on her own body.

Viewed from the front, the plastic busts seem to be real portraits of real people. Penny heightens this impression by combining the works with large-format colour photographs of the busts, resembling passport photos, that in terms of their aesthetics, choice of motif and precision clearly make reference to the austere portrait photography of Thomas Ruff. By means of the both documentary and dissociating medium of photography, a generally conclusive claim to reality is asserted that is meant to reinforce the real presence of the “people” being depicted and brings about a recognition effect through the duplication of the representation on different pictorial levels, yet it ultimately comes across as disturbing. The reason for this is the flattening of the profiles of the figures mentioned above, which viewed from the front still appear clearly three-dimensional. They do not correspond to one’s expectations and visual conventions, which are generally associated with statues. Penny’s busts seem to have been lifted out of the pictorial space, like a kind of hologram that curves forwards threedimensionally without, however, belonging to the pictorial space itself, which is why they occasionally appear strangely isolated. They have the characteristics of a relief and yet exist without the obligatory connection to the surface of the wall, so that the reverse side can be completely developed.

This demonstrates Penny’s intense examination of photography, which as a two-dimensional medium lays claim to being a picture of reality and yet cannot convey a real, that is to say, plastic impression. In contrast, a conventional sculpture actually occupies space and, as an object, has at its command a material and tactile presence with several perspectives, yet due to its model-like, representative character ultimately remains only a construct of reality. Penny transfers the specific features of two-dimensional pictorial space to the level of the three-dimensional, or rather to a conceived intermediate stage, which in a certain way allows him to become a consciously oscillating mediator in the age-old dispute around the primacy of either painting or sculpture. This results in a chimera of reality that, like a cardboard cut-out, is not in a position to depict the person per se. In the case of the No One – In Particular series, the person does not exist; rather Penny merely draws attention to its pictorial representation and thus to the impossibility of the rendering of reality. In an interview conducted in 2005, Penny stated that “ … the real is that which cannot be represented; the real is that which cannot be symbolised; and so what you’re left with is representation”.3

In Penny’s work, the transfer of the features of photography to sculpture, and in this case the features of digital photography – which by means of common image-processing programs can be more easily manipulated than ever before – leads to increasingly grotesque distortions of reality. This is evident in the Stretch series, produced between 2003 and 2008, in which he partly extends oversized female and male busts vertically. He has also recently experimented with innovative imaging processes, such as the three-dimensional body scan: a virtual sculptural image is generated that, according to specific parameters laid down by the artist, is distorted on a computer and can subsequently be shaped into an object by means of laser technology. This method serves as a starting point for a portrait, such as Michael from 2010, which when viewed from any perspective appears to be distorted, apparently deformed, and thus disconnected from the image of reality.

While analogue photography still asserts a claim to documentary reality, this no longer necessarily applies in this digital and virtual age, due to the computer-controlled manipulability of the image when it is broken up into electronic pixels. The media and the world of advertising permanently avail themselves of this possibility in order to create the illusion of consummate beauty and an apparently perfect world. Pictures of movie stars and models are diffused and digitally enhanced. Blemishes are removed, teeth artificially whitened and bodies stretched until they have ideal proportions. The viewer unconsciously believes that what he or she sees is real, as photographs continue to possess ostensible validity.

With his almost caricature-like, overstretched busts of everyday people who do not conform to an ideal type, Penny holds a mirror up to this phenomenon in the media landscape that reverses everything into its opposite and is designed to emphatically make us aware of what we are actually dealing with time and again.

More than ever before, the media is our window onto the world, which we use to obtain information about global events and in whose images we place our trust, albeit no longer completely without reservation.

In his bust titled L. Faux (2005), to which he added CMYK colours, Penny presents an unsettling form in which the features of the face, such as the eyes, nose and mouth, have been placed next to and above one another multiple times, creating a sfumato blur that makes the depiction appear unreal. The individual elements are stained in the colours used in the print media for process-colour printing, consisting of the inks cyan, magenta, yellow and black, and convey an intensely jarring sculptural image of an incorrectly printed proof in which the individual colour grades have emerged. He proceeds in a similar but slightly different way with the busts labelled RGB, which have also been abstracted in terms of colour: he renders them in the separate and merging, shimmering shades of red, green and blue used in the formation of television images. Here, too, his criticism of the media is obvious: Penny points out the enormous extent to which the representation and communication of reality lie in the hands of, and is filtered by, print and audiovisual media by precisely showing us their production mechanisms with a depiction that suggests reality.

In the Anamorph series (2003–08), Penny distorts his portrait busts asymmetrically along their horizontal and vertical axes so that they can only be correctly perceived from a specific angle. The term “anamorphosis” is derived from Greek and means to shape or form again. It denotes a controlled perspectival distortion according to visual rules and, like the invention of central perspective, which can be defined as its inverse,4 originated during the Renaissance. The first anamorphic drawing can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci. The most well-known example in painting is an anamorphosis in the painting The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger in the form of an oblique object suspended in the lower section of the picture. The skull it evinces, which can be interpreted as a vanitas motif, does not first become visible until one views the painting at a shallow angle from the right-hand side. Anamorphosis is associated with epistemological reflections on the concept of reality, which also gain relevance in relation to Penny’s oeuvre. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), for example, was the first to introduce them into the modern philosophical discourse. He sees a metaphor in anamorphosis for the complexity of the world that presents itself in human reason, which is trapped within the boundaries of empirical knowledge. The solving of this distorted picture can only occur from an ideal standpoint outside of pictorial reality, which in Leibniz’s eyes is only to be found in God and his universal insight.5 Thus, anamorphosis, in which “the mode of depiction triumphs over what is being depicted”,6 can be understood as a distorted projection or fictitious approach to the notion of reality as it is also brought to bear in the model character of the natural sciences, in particular following the criticism of their methodology in connection with the theory of relativity and quantum theory.

The works in the series Panagiota: Conversation, produced in 2008, are Penny’s most abstract sculptures to date – they show the merging, amorphous forms of a young woman in a nearly three-meter-wide portrait. In terms of style they are in part reminiscent of the three-dimensional portraits of the artist Francis Bacon. The source material for Penny’s series was a photograph of Panagiota Dimos, one of his friends and also an artist, which shows her in conversation for an instant, captured using a tracking shot with a time exposure. Comparable to the attempt by the Futurists in the early twentieth century to translate speed and motion into the static media of painting and sculpture using the successive fragmentation of forms, Penny addresses the phenomenon of time in three-dimensional space and in doing so augments his works with a fourth dimension.

In one of his most recent works from 2010 Penny also deals with the fleetingness and fragility of human existence, which adds an extra level of meaning in the dissolving forms of these works, though in a different way. In a bust descriptively titled Old Self, Penny, born in 1953, depicts himself as an approximately eighty-year-old man.

Marcel Duchamp is regarded as the precursor to this idea of chronological distortion, subsequently taken up by others. Ahead of his time, the artist depicted himself as an eighty-five-yearold in his work Marcel Duchamp at the Age of 85, a black-and-white photograph from 1945. At that point in time Duchamp was fifty-seven, almost the same age as Penny is in 2011.

An acquaintance with Duchamp’s biography also helps explain what Penny is concerned with in this work. For depicting oneself as an old man in a work of art is a misleading projection, which, while it definitely appears probable, has not yet been fulfilled and will presumably deviate from one’s actual looks, differing from one’s imagined outer appearance. Marcel Duchamp died at eighty-one and did not survive to see whether his projected image of himself held true.

Penny also deals with the problems associated with projection in a photograph that bears the fitting title Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be. It is a black-and-white photograph of the bust of him as an old man, the style of which – and thus unlike in Duchamp’s case – is today associated far more with the idea of a consciously evoked past and sustaining memory. This leads to a misleading relationship between the triad of present, future and past, to the extent that, with his bust of himself as an old man, Penny anticipates tomorrow today and, by transforming it into the medium of black-and-white photography, has also become yesterday.

Evan Penny’s oeuvre is a multilayered examination of the problematic nature of the phenomenon of reality and its alleged forms of representation. His works play a critical game with our perception that swings between realistic depiction and the Brechtian alienation technique, in that they reveal and warn us time and again that we should not succumb to pure illusion, but constantly scrutinise it. Indeed, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it: “There is no surer way of evading the world than art, and no surer way of attaching oneself to it.”7

Veit Ziegelmaier


  1. This indicates a reference to the niche figures of antiquity, whose non-visible side was frequently only crudely elaborated.
  2. Kenneth E. Silver, Evan Penny: The Flesh is Weak, in Evan Penny, exh. cat., Sperone Westwater (New York: Sperone Westwater, 2009), n.p.
  3. Robert Enright and Mekka Walsh, The Artful Doubter: Evan Penny and the Making of Extraordinary Objects, Border Crossings, no. 98 (June 2006), pp. 24–39, esp. p. 37.
  4. Jacques Lacan, Anamorphosis, in: Allain Miller (ed.), Four Fundamental Principles of Psychoanalysis, Alan Sheridan (trans.) (New York, 1981), pp. 79–90.
  5. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Die Theodizee, in: H. Herring et al. (eds.), Philosophische Schriften, vol. 2.1, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996), pp. 459 – 461. Cf. also Kyung-Ho Cha and Markus Rautzenberg, “Einleitung: Im Theater des Seh- ens; Anamorphose als Bild und philosophische Metapher”, in: K-H. Cha and M. Rautzenberg (eds.), Der entstellte Blick: Anamorphosen in Kunst, Literatur und Philosophie, (Munich: Fink, 2008), pp. 7–22, esp. pp. 10 f.
  6. Translated from Max Wechsler, Illusionen der Wirklichkeit: Oder vom imaginierten Denken des Sehens, in Markus Raetz: Arbeiten 1962 bis 1986, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zürich (Zurich: Kunsthaus Zürich et al., 1986), pp. 11–21, esp. p. 18.
  7. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, David Constantine (trans.) (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 152