by Joe Houston
The real can't be symbolized, so what you're
left with is representation. – Evan Penny
Evan Penny's eccentric portraiture transforms the figurative tradition into contemporary observations on the nature of representation. His lifelike sculptures and photographs tantalize us with vivid allusions to reality, while emphatically affirming their fictional demeanor. When faced with one of Penny's incredible people, we may not believe what we see.
Penny's chosen format is the portrait bust, a truncation of head and shoulders that has been a standard form of official portraiture since ancient Rome. This efficient format continues to serve as proof of identity in all manner of forms, including the driver's licenses or passports we carry with us. Penny renders this most familiar of portrayals strange and unsettling by enlarging, stretching, and skewing his sitters' features and repositioning them in shallow relief. Neither fully three dimensional nor two dimensional, they exist in an ambiguous space between statuary and photography, a place beyond ordinary experience.
Despite the artifice manifested by their fragmentary nature and bizarre proportions, Penny's busts are endowed with an innate sense of living, breathing subjects. The virtuoso portrait of his friend Libby Faux – ironically her real name – looms unbelievably large at five times her actual size, yet is utterly convincing in its texture, translucency, and surface detail. Thus, she appears lifelike even when flattened into the depth of a few inches as in L. Faux: Colour 2 (Libby). This effect is more subtle in Back of Kelly, Variation #1, which is only slightly larger than life. Like L. Faux, Kelly appears to be fully three-dimensional from a distance, but at close proximity is revealed to be projecting only slightly above the wall surface on which the work is mounted. As we peer around the bust, the elusive individual flattens into oblivion, his facial features disappearing from view. This illusion of animation heightens the extraordinary sensation of realism.
The perceptual paradox, a confusion of fact and fiction, is all the more uncanny in Penny's No One – In Particular series, which are imagined portraits of non-existent people. (Old) No One – In Particular #4, Series 2, is a sculptural variant of the one of these fictional characters, whose hair and clothing vary from version to version. To further confound our perception, Penny also presents some sculptures as large-scale photographs. Flattened by the camera's machinelike gaze and suggestively cropped, imagined subjects such as No One – In Particular #6, Series 2 become even more plausible. In a veritable hall of mirrors, Penny leads us to question the origins of his images. What came first: the person, the photo, the sculpture? This bewildering process of simulation underscores what may be considered a crisis of representation in our postmodern era of mechanical reproduction.
Penny's art flourishes within those contradictions between photographic representation, sculptural invention, and perceived reality. He is heir to the photorealist and hyperrealist artists who gained prominence in the 1970s, just as he was beginning his studies in art school. Painter Chuck Close, who creates larger-than-life portraits from photos, and sculptor Duane Hanson, who cast living bodies into illusionistic figures, are undeniable points of reference. While Penny's figures provoke a double-take similar to Hanson's doppelgangers, they are never cast directly from life nor presented at actual scale. Since the early 1980s, Penny has painstakingly modeled his figures in clay, a hands-on process that allows him to bring what he describes as a "consciousness" to his work. The clay bust is used to form a rigid mold into which he layers pigmented silicone and fiberglass. Once removed from its mold, the rubbery mask is heightened with manifold details, such as surface blemishes, glassy eyes, and natural hairs inserted into miniscule follicles. This painstaking process requires an intensity of observation and an obsessiveness of execution that lend his portraits a living presence, even when unnaturally proportioned.
Penny's latest works probe the boundaries of recognition by metamorphosing the human body by extreme degrees. Whether skewed diagonally, as in Untitled (Anamorph #3), or vertically, as in Untitled (Male Stretch #2), the increasingly elastic sculptures exceed anatomical possibility, yet retain an eerie plausibility. Such distortions abandon traditional spatial logic to embrace the logic of virtual space now made possible by the computer. Indeed, Penny's Stretch sculptures are titled after the command in Adobe Photoshop® software, which he uses to mutate his source images. Fleshing out these fantastic digital distortions into the three-dimensional realm, Penny engages us physically in the fluid dynamics of cyberspace. Standing before a sculpture like Male Stretch #2, we sense the surrounding environment warping and our own bodies compressing in response.
In the digital age, our grasp of reality is ever more elusive. The virtual and the real no doubt will become increasingly intertwined, profoundly altering our vision and our worldview as a result. Our biological bodies can be re-engineered by new technologies, our identities altered, stolen, and invented as easily as digital code can be reconfigured. Ultimately, Evan Penny's provocative portraits are not about the particular people he portrays. Rather, they underscore the instability and mutability of the human subject in our digitally decoded, electronically mediated, and multitasking age. His ambiguous bodies test the limitations of traditional forms of representation to remind us that our notion of "the real" is as mutable as our point-of-view.
Joe Houston, 2007