How We See Ourselves Now
by David Moos
I think one's sense of appearance is assaulted all the time by photography and by film. So that, when one looks at something, one's not only looking at it directly but one's also looking at it through the assault that has already been made on one by photography and film.
- Francis Bacon
Upon first seeing L. Faux: CMYK, Evan Penny's larger-than-life-sized depiction of the face and upper torso of a middle-aged woman, one has the sensation of wanting to adjust the lens or correct the projector. But this is not a projected image, it is, surprisingly, a sculpture in silicone. As one approaches the sculpture - indeed, the work's unsettling verisimilitude compels one toward it - the disconcerting, visually vibrating image refuses to resolve. Yet within each of the three distinctly colored portrayals of the woman's likeness there is a legibility that the eye tries to fix. Close up one is able to explore this perception, to behold the unresolved image rendered in three dimensions. Three pairs of eyes, five nostrils, six lips, the intersecting halos of multicolored hair - the meticulously sculpted details hold our gaze.
CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), are the fundamental colors required for offset printing. Every color in the spectrum can be described on a printed page as a mixture of the three basic process colors; for black a true black must be added. By producing this tri-colored portrait of his friend Libby Faux (her real name), Penny offers a commentary on image formation - on the split between two-dimensional printed imagery, which today is entirely digital, and human perception. Penny endeavors to present in three-dimensions perceptual phenomena that are only available to us through photographic and digital realms. We could, for example, never see a person such as L. Faux: CMYK - the contours of self-definition stuttering, struggling for resolution. The work is both an existential statement as much as a critique of how image technologies have remodeled human vision.
Penny's sculptures are relatively flat, despite their appearance as full volumes, and this spatial compression operates to affirm the flatness of the photographic referent that they all invoke. Back of Evan, for example, a portrait of the artist seen from behind, perfectly conjures the impression of volume but when one searches for the face one discovers only a shallow plane. By cutting off the illusionism, Penny enforces the tension between the two- and three-dimensional realms. In this gap that divides perception from reproduction one can locate Penny's project as an artist.
In the mid-1960s, the painter Francis Bacon characterized the impact of photography and film as an "assault," asserting that human vision is contingent upon the filter of mediated imagery. If this insight strikes us today as commonplace, it is, in part, because of painting's necessary reaction to and inevitable embrace of photographic strategies. The link between photography and painting is a well-rehearsed trope in contemporary art, the agon between the two media having been addressed by such artists as Vija Celmins, Gerhard Richter, and Chuck Close. In Close's monumental portrait paintings, in works such as Kent, (1970-71), the processes of photographic reproduction become the means through which painting is made. For Kent, his first painting in color, Close used color transparencies derived from a single portrait photograph as his guide. On the canvas Close over-laid three one-color paintings, applying first a red, then blue, and finally a yellow image of Kent, wearing tinted filters over his glasses so that he could see only the color he was painting. This layering has an affinity to how Penny constructed L. Faux: CMYK - conceiving the image of his portrait in various, sequential stages of formation.
Penny's process is traditional and painstaking. He begins by sculpting the figure in grey modeling clay, massed over an armature of resin and foam. All aspects of the work - particularities of scale, volume, texture, expression - are finely rendered in this colorless medium. A mold is then fitted to this grisaille sculpture as a rubber impression is taken. As the thick rubber is peeled away, the clay sculpture is lost. Penny then 'lays up' numerous thin coats of silicone, applying a preliminary thin layer in which he pigments the silicon and paints the defining features of the skin. He uses an array of implements to apply color. The blemishes, moles, freckles and other distinguishing features are painted (with a variety of tools ranging from brushes to hypodermic syringes), with an infallible precision. In the second and third layers, some of these punctuating features may be elaborated, and deeper red tones are added. In successive applications, a flesh-toned substance called flocking is blended into the gel-like silicone. This fibrous material, which has the soft consistency of dust, supplies the overall tonality to the work. These additional layers give the skin its translucent appearance, the flocking trapped beneath the preliminary layers, animating the deep surface of what can be thought of as a silicone 'painting.' The process requires expert knowledge about means of application, thickness of successive layers, and required interstitial curing times.
Penny must paint within the confined space of his rubber mold. In that first layer all of the pigmenting and detailing must be meticulously applied, for that layer becomes the outermost surface of the work. After a final coat of liquid fiberglass that hardens to hold the shape of the sculpture, the mold is removed. At this stage the work is nearly complete, and Penny may touch up the outer surface in the manner of a make-up artist, modulating textures, deepening lines, accenting certain features of the face. Eyes that he has carefully constructed in a multi-stage mold making process, are set behind the silicone, and then the punctilious task of implanting each hair individually commences. Penny's techniques are adapted from the film industry, from the specialized metier of prosthetics and special effects make-up, which bears close resemblance to the medical industry's methods of producing human prostheses. Penny's technical acumen derives from his work in the 1990s with a Toronto film company FX Smith, where he crafted, for example, the blown apart head of President Kennedy for Oliver Stone's JFK. Penny has since evolved his practice and adapted older techniques, which relied upon resins, to his own needs.
Penny's process bears the most in common with an artist like Ron Mueck, who models his sculpture in similar successive phases. But unlike Mueck, who uses props and poses his figures on stools, places them in wooden boats, or swaddles them in blankets, Penny is unencumbered by narrative. His portrait forms are assertively cropped. Their clothing offers only a hint of personality, enough to conjure association, but never becoming didactic. The clothes rather function as formal devices, introducing color and texture. The cropping of the body subliminally relates to the rectangular format of painting and photography, again invoking those media as foundational to Penny's sculpture.
Within Penny's process a great leap is made, between the grey clay and the first layer of silicone. In that first layer, the work transitorily changes from three- to two-dimensions, as he rapidly tints the gel-like substance before it congeals. Encoded in this process, which moves constantly between sculpting and painting, are the theoretical underpinnings of his artistic enterprise. Penny's work takes over the effects of photography and translates them into sculpture. A work such as Aerial accentuates this ambition by rendering a nude male figure simultaneously in two- and three-dimensions. The aluminum base of Aerial is flush with the wall, and the feet of the man are nearly flat. As our gaze ascends this drastically foreshortened figure which we see from above, the sculpture acquires dimensional volume. The torso and head become full-bodied forms detached from the wall, casting shadows in real space. A technical and conceptual tour de force, Penny signals this transition, from image to sculpture, by having the man reach back with one hand to touch the wall, to stabilize the illusion of this palpable perception.
For Penny, the origin of such works begins with rough pencil drawings that he makes on the wall of his studio. In drawn form he assesses the terms of visual viability, calibrating the limits of distortion that will be feasible in sculpture. Such traditional means of creative inception relate to his formal training at the Alberta College of Art, and his experience teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, in the late-1980s. While Penny uses pencil to sketch the initial concept, he relies upon Photoshop to map the evolving sculpture. In works such as Aerial, and in more explicitly anamorphic sculptures such as Untitled Anamorph #3, where the portrait head has been stretched along a slight diagonal axis, the impact of the contortion on every bodily and facial feature is computer rendered, based upon an initial photograph. Penny's source material may be a simple snapshot, such as the photograph he took of a young man in Spain that became the inspiration for Madrileno #1, a monumental example of a 'stretch' sculpture. Stretching images with the aid of a computer involves a simple command; creating such sculptures is a complex task that brings art historical precedent into the twenty-first century.
Indeed, Penny's Aerial could be considered a contemporary version of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, the sculpture proposing a new geometrically compressed standard for the human form, which has now become a hand-modeled construct representing machine-assisted vision. Penny deliberately plays upon such well-known precedents that configure distortions in visual culture, including Michelangelo's covert, collapsed self-portrait as an apparition of deflated skin in the Sistine Chapel, or Hans Holbein the Younger's Jean de Dintville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors), in which an anamorphically rendered skull mysteriously hovers in the painting's foreground. Unlike Holbein's skull, which if viewed from an extremely acute angel can be perceived as a normal skull, Penny's sculptures can never be returned to their original orientation because they exist as sculpture, not mere images. He has turned optics into substance and our task as viewers becomes one of exploring this new, contorted reality in which, for example, the eyes of Madrileno #1 are ovoid orbs existing in this other dimension.
Penny offers a meta-critique on the gymnastics of digital vision through an on-going series of work titled No One - In Particular, where he contradicts the primacy of photography. In No One - In Particular #4 , which displays an elderly man caught in a moment of self-reflection, or No One - In Particular #15, where a young red haired woman seems to ponder her destiny, Penny presents utterly fictive people. Each of the figures in this series is a sheer act of invention, rooted in no real encounter or "particular' photographic referent - except the countless images that daily circulate in our lives and merge with experience. The subject of these works, which begin in Penny's imagination and become defined through the pure act of sculpting, is portraiture itself, in the classical, now almost unfamiliar sense: the act of depicting the human presence. Freed from the constraints of emulation, of needing to faithfully reproduce a likeness, these works are Penny's clearest disclosure of an existential dimension. The vacant eyes and stolid faces of these figures become receiving templates for our own emotional investments, as we take a voyeuristic pleasure in surveying these uncannily realistic, magnified renditions of the human.
When one sees these works reproduced on a page, they read like Thomas Ruff's tightly cropped, over-large portrait photographs, and in a sense, this is confirmation of their success. Appearing as photographs of ordinary people, these utterly plausible images deconstruct the digital superstructure that now underwrites perception. The No One - In Particular works unsettle our trust in the photographic, detaching the work from its dependence upon empirical precedent, throwing into question assumptions about Penny's other sculptures such as Madrileno #1 which are rooted in precise likenesses. The ricocheting implications of Penny's strategy relate not only to "how we see ourselves now," to use the artist's own phrase, but to how we conceive of who we are.
David Moos, 2005