Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays

reviews and essays

What It Takes to Get a Head

By Kathryn Shattuck

Evan Penny's sculptures are a little like that first look into a magnifying mirror: the instinctive response is to recoil in horror. And then the fascination sets in. Those pores! Those blemishes, bags and droops! What wonders a bit of concealer could work.

Recently, Mr. Penny explained how he went about creating the heads and torsos in No One - In Particular, his one-man show at the Sperone Westwater Gallery, on view through Saturday.

He got his start, he said, working in special effects for films. For the company FX Smith, he had the macabre task of constructing a post-mortem model of President Kennedy's head, which was used in Oliver Stone's movie JFK. For these less forensic but in some ways equally discomforting images, he begins with what he calls a very conventional rendering technique - sculpturing in gray modeling clay heads, backs or torsos, and carving in all the requisite lines and wrinkles. Skin texture? That would be from an orange peel.

He then creates a rubber impression that will become his mold for thin layers of silicone. The first is the outer layer, into which Mr. Penny paints freckles, surfaces blemishes, redness and the like. Seven more layers follow, including the neutral skin tone and a blue layer for under-eye bags, while in another he uses a rayon-based material called flocking to give the fake skin depth. Finally, Mr. Penny paints in a fatty layer, then hardens his sculpture with a coat of liquid resin and fiberglass before the mold is removed.

Next come the eyes, for which he layers colored plastic urethanes while positioning the gaze. "You can't give the eye any place to land that the viewer doesn't believe," he said.

Finally, he punches in each whisker, eyebrow, eyelash and head hair with maniacal precision. "The sculpting process alone can take 25 hours," he said, "but a good head of hair, that's 200."

Whether they're facing forward or looking back, they give the impression of a photograph at once three dimensional and yet flattened against a wall, or along the lines of perspective. "They're kind of a give and take between the sculptural and the photographic," he said, "the space between how we read ourselves in real time and how we come to imagine ourselves in the image." For his models, the real-time element may always be the most dominant factor; one friend sat 400 hours for her portrait. "People assume that my work takes a long time," Mr. Penny said. "Well, it takes a lot longer than that."

Kathryn Shattuck, 2005