Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays

reviews and essays

Haunting Holbein

Vikky Alexander (Canadian; born Victoria, BC, 1959)
Christian Ekart (Canadian/American, born Calgary, AB, 1959)
Evan Penny (Canadian, born Elim, South Africa, 1953)

Evan Penny’s Homage to Holbein (2015) is in truth a double homage. It plays to not only Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521-22) but also The Ambassadors (1533) in which an anamorphic skull—seemingly invading the picture from another dimension—is canted sideways at the feet of the richly garbed French ambassadors to the court of Henry VIII, Jean de Dinteville and George de Selve. The skull is a precursor of Penny’s longstanding interest in stretched sculptural form and the perceptual dislocation of Holbein’s early anamorphic experiment in representation carries over to Penny’s work which doubles the length of the Holbein to measure just one inch shy of fourteen feet long. With silicone, hair and polychromed wood, Penny revisits Holbein’s excruciating portrayal of an open-mouth, open-eyed Dead Christ lying entombed in a state of decomposition. The painting is regarded as a masterwork of Northern Renaissance art and often thought of as a test of faith for its viewers. In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, the painting figures prominently. In a suicide note written by one character, the realism of death supersedes the possibility of resurrection and in Penny’s work this idea still lingers as we take in the emaciation of the figure, its bruising and its blackening wounds. Penny’s sculpture plays with this subtext and runs it alongside his ongoing concern with images as conveyors of truth. If the realism of Holbein’s Dead Christ could confound faith, then the irrealism of the warped elongation of the figure in Homage is a way of remembering our way back through the flexible tissues of image making to the original human story. We see a 21st-century work of art look back 500 years and revisit questions of belief and mortality, only this time the image is ensconced together with the body in our conception of reality.

In his new series Limbus‑After Holbein, Christian Ekart embraces the same religious backdrop with wall works that echo the horizontal proportions of Holbein’s Dead Christ. Long attached to abstracting the allure of religious art and traditional icon painting, Eckart formalizes a classical pictorial space with broad, beveled frame structures that recall the coffin-like enclosure holding the prone body of the crucified figure in the Holbein. Importantly, the frames are fabricated to appear as if they are broken on the diagonal, with the right half riding higher than the left. In this simple strategy of fracture and shift, Eckart encapsulates a falling/rising dynamic that eloquently paraphrases the death and resurrection theme of the Holbein painting. The Christ figure remains invisibly present as a missing subject on the flat “picture plane” surfaces within the frames. The heft and sheen of the objects make convincing formal transit points for the viewer. Through their allusions to style and architecture, they carry the work into the world of the church and the reverent mindset within. As works of art, with matte automobile finishes, their paradox is to fuse that gloried past of hallowed belief with a spare, even utilitarian present.

Vikky Alexander joins both artists with another Christian themed work that lifts the tone with a tongue-in-cheek cruciform photo-assemblage of Elvis souvenir photographs that cross at the word “Grace.” We see Elvis in Vegas, Elvis from Hollywood, Elvis as a young superstar of Rock and Roll as “grace” extends beyond godly favour to Graceland the mansion and Christian market hits like the pious singing of Amazing Grace. The kitsch religiosity in the Alexander is a long way from the concerns of Penny and Eckart but is a fair account of how popular culture can misplace treasured beliefs. Here, they are pinned to wall in an ironic homage to “the king.” The work is loud with secular apostasy. As a sharp-minded lark, it skewers the overlap of celebrity and religion. Yet the mournful black frames surrounding the Elvis portraits resonate with adoration and vulnerability. The work of art doubles as a cult object that somehow plumbs emotional wells not unaligned with Holbein’s Dead Christ. It makes the world more complicated, not less.

Richard Rhodes, 2015