Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays

reviews and essays

Challenging Perceptions

By Noel Gallagher

Absolutely Unreal is an accurate title for the exhibit of startingly authentic-yet-illusory works by Evan Penny on view at Museum London.

"I hope it reflects the kind of research and exploration done over the past 25 year by an artist who's in full-stride and at mid-career." Says the 50-year-old Penny of the show featuring large-scale figurative sculptures and photographic works from his L. Faux and No One - In Particular projects.

He adds that each of the 30 offerings in the diverse collection addresses "the questions of what's real and what isn't. We live with those questions all our lives."

"Sculpture and figuration open up a world of possibilities," the artist explains. "My motive is to present a situation that challenges people's expectations and their real experience."

Exemplifying that approach are Penny's imposing sculptures, portrait busts which appear "normal," but only when viewed from a front-on-perspective. The figures, presented and mirrored by their photographic counterparts, indicate the artist's concern with "artifice and the representation of the real."

"What interests me most about Evan's work is that he takes what at first blush appears to be something quite straightforward and traditional, and subverts it," says Brian Meehan. Museum London's executive director and curator of the exhibit, which runs until March 14.

"One can certainly marvel at the technical ability that goes into the work," he adds. "But what sets it apart is Evan's ability to create sculpture that has an undeniable uncanniness about it."

Penny emphasizes that the manipulated, often distorted, images aren't his attempts to answer the question of what is or isn't - real: "I present a fiction, an artificial scenario, and turn that into a self-conscious process."

Among the exhibit's many eye-catching entries is Self Portrait (2003), a sculpture creates using silicone, pigment hair and fabric.

"It's actually one of the first realistic self-portraits I've done," notes Penny, adding the bust is presented in a scale much larger than it's subject's true dimensions because "an actual size representation is a direct slice of life and doesn't challenge your perception."

Born in South Africa and raised in Alberta, Penny recalls his interest in art "grew serious" when he graduated from high school and entered the Alberta College of Art.

"From the very beginning, I took to figurative sculpture like a duck to water. I was drawn to the materiality of it, of building three-dimensional objects," says the artist, speaking from his studio in Toronto.

His reputation as one of Canada's premier figurative sculptors drew the attention of film companies needing artists to make movie magic.

Penny has created special makeup effects, prosthetics, body doubles, animals and fantasy creatures for major motion pictures such as Mimic, Natural Born Killers, Face Off, Jacob's Ladder, Legends of the Fall and JFK.

The prosthetic makeup specialist helped "transform" Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins into President Richard Nixon for Oliver Stone's hit movie, Nixon, and made actor Gary Sinese look like another American president, the title figure of the HBO TV special Truman.

Penny finds his big-screen assignments enjoyable, but confining.

"In film, artists have to deal with compromises. It's a balancing act between producing what the project needs and still being commited to your own creativity. So you have to make some sacrifices. Film is very seductive because the feedback you get it so immesurable and immediate. But, at the same time, you realize the finished product is not yours. You're working to meet someone else's demands and have very set deadlines - and all that's antithetical to your work as an artist."

Conversely, the adds, Absolutely Unreal is a source of great personal satisfaction.

"These works reflect an observation and perception of things and that's a very subjective process. It's about what I'm seeing."

Its Museum London start marks the beginning of the exhibit's two-year touring schedule, which includes stops at art galleries in Calgary, Saskatoon and Sault St. Marie.

Noel Gallagher, 2004