Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays

reviews and essays

Why do you peel me from myself?

“Why do you peel me from myself?” [Quid me mihi detrahis?] In Ovid’s account, the subhuman satyr Marsyas asks this question, even as he is undergoing flaying at the hands of Apollo after having lost to him in a musical contest. It is no surprise that a god could create more beautiful music than a mortal being, but it does seem that Apollo, supposedly the god of harmony and reason, has gone a little far in his cruelty. Something of the bestiality of Marsyas had gotten into him after all. In some versions of the legend, the musical competition between them remained a draw after the first round, at which point Apollo played his lyre upside down, an inversion beyond Marsyas’s reach. Did the god have to upend harmony in order to beat his earthly rival? In several ancient renditions of the scene, as well as in Titian’s famous painting of the 16th century, Apollo is shown carefully skinning a figure of Marsyas that is hanging upside down. For a Christian artist such as Titian, the scene could only be a form of counter-crucifixion, god sacrificing beast, rather than humans sacrificing god.

Right in the midst of his torture, Marsyas is the one who asks the reasonable question: “Why do you peel me from myself?” This is a basic question. Why the excess, Apollo? What are you doing? The question is also philosophical. Marsyas is truly wondering why it is that Apollo should be so interested in extracting an inner Marsyas from the outer one. The god patiently and curiously sets to work. Ovid writes:

As he screams, the skin is flayed from the surface of his body, no part is untouched. Blood flows everywhere, the exposed sinews are visible, and the trembling veins quiver, without skin to hide them: you can number the internal organs, and the fibres of the lungs, clearly visible in his chest.”

The story of Christ’s sacrifice is in many ways the inverse of the Marsyas story. God merges with Human in the figure of Christ, whose death reconciles heaven and earth. Humans are now given a chance to throw off their original sin, the old wine carried in the old skin, and to become the vessels of a new wine, finding the divine within themselves. The two stories—flaying and crucifixion—presented artists with special challenges, often bringing them to the limits of their art.

The ancient sculptors of the Marsyas myth found themselves engaged in Apollo’s work as they carved away at Marsyas’s body. Chiseling at the stone, the sculptor would have reached the outer contours of Marsyas’s form, and then would have proceeded to cut to the subcutaneous layer of raw sinew and muscle. In doing so, they released the material truth of the marble itself, which was quarried from veins discovered in the earth. Some ancient sculptors chose to use a red-hued stone for their Marsyas figures, working to reveal the veining running through the stone’s substance. Titian’s painting proceeds in a very different way, also testing the limits of the medium. The entire central portion of the painting is occupied by the inverted figure of Marsyas. No longer a cleanly contoured body but instead a mass of bloody flesh, he represents an alternative principle of painting—painting from the inside out, painting without finish. Apollo is at work transforming Marsyas into a different kind of body, and in the process, unleashes the potentiality of paint, palpable as a material even as it describes messy earthly realities. The other figures in the legend, the companions of Marsyas now beginning their lament, become in Titian’s version something more like assistants and beholders. The painting anatomizes the act of painting.

The Christian version of Marsyas, the crucified Christ, also brought artists to a limit condition of their art. Although the subject was central to the Christian story, it took centuries for the image of Christ on the cross even to make an appearance in Christian art. During the period when Christians were a persecuted minority, the cross was still seen as an instrument of the vilest form of torture and execution, reserved for slaves, thieves and outcasts. It took the fading of the Roman Empire and with it the use of crucifixion as a method of capital punishment for the negative associations of such a scene to recede from memory.

The first crucifixes appeared in pictures, scenes of the crucifixion from the fifth and sixth century that found explanatory context in the sequence of other scenes making up the Christian story. Crucifixes as free-standing objects appeared in significant numbers only after the tenth century. Even then, crucifixes showed Christ as a living figure mounted on the cross. Only eventually did artists produce crucifixes carrying a dead or dying figure. So, first there was no cross, then there were crosses without a body, then the body was placed on the cross, still alive, and then the body on the cross died. This more than thousand-year-long history of Christian art’s coming to terms with the figure of a dead man on a cross recapitulates in extreme slow motion the events of one afternoon in Palestine in the year 33 AD, when a cross was constructed, a body was nailed to it, then the body-carrying cross was displayed to the people, and then the body died hanging there. Once they had found their way to representing Christ dead on the cross, Christian artists outdid each other in depicting the various signs of death—the blood, both dried and still spouting, the bruised and torn skin, the sagging limbs, the contracted hands and feet, the filmy eyes. By the end of the fifteenth century, the insistence on Christ’s dead body, and on the lament of the mourners over it, had become so extreme that more than one theologian railed against the trend, seeing in it an implicit denial of the larger picture of Christian redemption. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, launched five hundred years ago in 1517, such depictions began to look like instances of the vanity, excess, and pointlessness of religious art altogether.

The Dead Christ of 1521 by Hans Holbein is a limit point of Christian art—and of Holbein’s own art. Whether he intended this painting as a farewell to Christian art or not, he left it behind in Basel and withdrew from religious art, moving to England, where he was to specialize in secular portraits of living people. Holbein’s Christ is devoid of life and sealed in the tomb, but that doesn’t mean that organic processes have stopped. Things are still happening to this body. The burial cloth under him gathers at the points where the body meets its support: the head, the elbow, the hand, the feet. The gatherings register the small movements that have occurred during the time that the body has lain here, the contractions of rigor mortis. These minor movements form a micro-narrative, an unheroic epilogue of the great Passion story.

After Holbein’s departure from Basel, where he painted this Christ, the theologian John Calvin would insist on the complete separation of art from religion. He was not against art-making per  se. The talents exercised by human beings in the various arts were a gift of God and thus should be cultivated. He simply believed that art should not be confused with religion, since it would only denigrate divinity to pretend that it could be represented. The job of the painter, according to Calvin, was to represent the world, God’s creation, in all of its detail and splendor. A future of secular realist art was grounded in this powerful theoretical foundation. In retrospect, Holbein’s uncompromising portrait of the lifeless corpse of Christ looked increasingly like a demonstration of the futility of Christian art—realism meddling where it shouldn’t have.

Evan Penny calls his work “a flaying of realism.” Until now, he has tampered with the procedures of mimetic representation through experiments with existing bodies—bodies reproduced in photographs and in three dimensions, one medium intersecting the other. In the more recent phase of work represented by this exhibition, he has extended these experiments through an engagement with historic works of art—ancient sculptures of Marsyas and Holbein’s Dead Christ, as well as more recent works, such as Géricault’s morgue studies of body parts. Unerringly, Penny has been drawn to works that are themselves instances of tampering with the media of representation: sculptures where carving a body becomes a form of flaying, a painting where Christianity faces its own negation, and a pictorial composition made up of body parts that no longer belong to bodies.

Penny’s signature method, which is to send one medium’s effects into the conditions of another medium, is not foreign to the historical works. Ancient sculptures of Marsyas upend the normal conditions of sculpture by showing, not a figure standing on a pedestal, but a body hanging, elongated, distorted, the substance of a body losing its contour. It is a blurry conception, better suited to the medium of painting, but translated into stone. Holbein’s Dead Christ is in fact a retort to sculpture, namely a late medieval tradition of three-dimensional figures of Christ in wood or stone inserted into the bottom-most register of altarpieces, or serving as the focus of sculptural Lamentation scenes. There is a limit to how startling deadness can be when the body is a sculpture, but things get strange when Holbein extracts the body from these three-dimensional conditions and releases it back into virtual life, only to have the the living color and the signs of movement reinforce the fact of its deadness. In analyzing body parts, Géricault was in fact continuing a centuries-long tradition of copying fragments of ancient statuary, as well as anatomical sculptures that presented the parts of the body for study. However, in these studies he went to the source, painting body parts from real dead and severed bodies left at the morgue—as if to say, “why use studio implements when the morgue offers the real thing?” Academic study of the figure was thus brought to its logical dead end.

Perhaps Penny has been taking his cue all along from these earlier turnings of the screw, and is only now making his inspiration in earlier art explicit. In any case, he is offering the next generation of intervention. He translates Holbein’s box (back) into sculpture. He takes Holbein’s figure, which is exactly life-sized, and stretches it as far as it will go while still remaining a legible body. That means that the life-sized scale is still in the figure, it still registers with us, even as we contend with this almost untenable distortion. On the one hand, the elongation completely undermines the painting’s realism, but even as we laugh at the ridiculous stretching, certain elements come uncomfortably alive, as if releasing the full potential of Holbein’s gesture. In the original painting Christ’s hair delicately trespasses the boundary of the tomb and enters our space, but only metaphorically. Everything stays within the painting. Holbein opened up the fourth wall of the box to make it possible for us to see inside the tomb and witness his virtual reality. When the box is retranslated into sculpture, a virtual trespass becomes absurdly factual. The hair is elongated, or should we say that it has grown?

Hair leaving the confines of the representation—inviting our touch, catching the light—can stand as a figure for the larger pattern of Penny’s theater of cascading consequences allowed to happen. The figure of Marsyas is already distorted by the extreme elongation produced by hanging, so the skewing introduced by Penny is stranger than a simple act of distortion after the fact. It is an extension of the ancient distortion. Géricault undertook to create compositions out of decompositions, body parts no longer belonging to bodies now assembled together and made the subject of art. What holds them together is no longer subject matter or composition, but rather the painting itself, the fact that these bits and pieces have been turned into the object of the artist’s gaze, into art. Penny explodes the fragile coherence of Géricault’s painting by (re)translating it into life-like three-dimensional form, releasing its absurdity into the world without the containing frame of the artist’s gaze and style. When turning them back into three-dimensional limbs, the question arises, how big should they be? (This is a less pressing question for the painter.) The logical solution is that they should be exactly the size of a body, that was Penny’s initial intention. He even produced casts from a real body, his own. But, strangely, the result looked small, smaller than a real body. (I know, because I saw the life-sized “model” with him right next to it.) In order for the body parts to feel real, they had to be enlarged considerably, and then the effect is uncannily like that of a body even as it intensifies the unsustainable strangeness of Géricault’s “non-decomposition”, or rather “decomposition.” The result is something that exceeds the boundaries both of anatomy and of art.

“It doesn’t quite behave like art.” “I have his catalogue and admired the work, but it is the one book I can’t stand to have visible on the coffee table.” These are the sorts of things that get said about Evan Penny’s work. Claude Lévi-Strauss once characterized the fundamental operation of works of art as that of reduction. Works of art take various elements of the real and reduce them, from three dimensions to two, from many materials to the selected materials of the artist, from an extension within an infinite multiplicity (how can one separate any one element of the world from the rest of the world?) into a selection that receives a frame, or a pedestal. Penny proceeds in exactly the opposite direction. His pieces tend to be larger than their real-world correlates. Life-sized limbs must be enlarged in order to be life-like, and to combat the effect of reduction that comes with art. He doesn’t reduce, he adds. “Life-sized’ is not only enlarged, but stretched and skewed. Artifacts of one technology surface inside of another, as when Photoshop blurring is reproduced in silicone. Marble sculptures grow hair, even while retaining the appearance of being hewn from marble—two orders of realism layered one on top of the other.

Penny’s logic of supercharging continuously threatens to leave the category of art behind. But this reaching beyond the boundaries of art, too, is part of the nature of art. As Robert Filliou said “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” Art is always drawn to what lies beyond art, and in breaking down the boundaries of art, reorganizes the premises of art-making itself.

Alexander Nagel, 2017