Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays

reviews and essays

Absolutely Unreal
The Sculpture and Photography of Evan Penny

by Nancy Tousley

Evan Penny makes a fist of his left hand, extends his forearm parallel to the studio floor and, with his right hand, begins to cut away at an imaginary block of solid material encasing his left, as though he were roughing out the hand's form. "This is a plane," he says, slicing across the surface made by the flat side of his fist, his curled index finger and the bottom part of his thumb; "This is a plane," now swiftly cutting across the back of his hand; and "This is a plane," here making the decisive gesture fly across his knuckles to the second joints of his closed fingers. Rotating his left hand to show the back and pointing to an area just below the big knuckles of his index and middle fingers, he goes on, "And this is a plane, and this is a plane, and this is a plane."

Penny is describing how he works through the perceptual process of close and closer observation from the model. With each gesture, the artist indicates the increasingly smaller planes and clusters of planes through which he moves deeper into the topography that defines the outer appearance of the body. These are the structures he is referring to when he emphasizes that his hyperrealist sculptures of the human figure are constructed, facet by facet, from the outside in. His focus is on the body's surface rather than on an anatomical idea that begins with the skeletal structure and ends with the skin.

Yes, to begin with, there is an armature supporting a clay mass. But it is through a myriad of part-to-whole relationships that Penny establishes a figure, the details being not the excess or surplus but the most finely wrought of its building blocks. Arrived at through process and an intense, almost micro-observation of life, the creation of the detail, then, is at the foundation of Penny's hyperrealist project, as much an act of bringing-into-being as it is an act of description. That "the locus of meaning" could reside on "the surface of the body, that boundary between what we think of as internal and private, and what we acknowledge as external and public," was a crucial insight Penny gleaned early in his career. The forces that shape the body from the inside are anatomical. "The forces that shape the figure from outside itself come from the artist: the act of manipulation, artifice, his process of making." 1

In Penny's Dupont Street studio in Toronto, where he is showing me how he works, there are several of the artist's old and new sculptures. 2 Two of them are so new they are at different stages of what remains a traditional process, despite some of the materials that Penny uses. He sculpts in clay, as artists have done for centuries, and casts in polyester resin, plaster, bronze, and silicone. The process has four parts: sculpting a clay model, taking a mould of the clay, casting from the mould into the permanent material, and finishing the sculpture. In his vocabulary of sculptural forms Penny also follows tradition: standing figure, intaglio plaque, high relief, low relief, portrait head, bust, caricature, and anamorphic projection, a trope from Renaissance painting, used today as a device in film and virtual reality. Yet he adheres to tradition only to refresh and contemporize it.

The nearly completed Stretch 1 (2003), a towering, comical, distorted head that looks as if it's been pulled like taffy into its nearly three-metre length, has been cast in pigmented silicone and has hair, eyelashes and stubble; but the T-shirt it wears is a prototype. The soft, waxy clay bust of Gerry (2003), a twice life-size portrait bust of a man with an animated face, is in progress on a modeling stand. Self-Portrait (2003), a delicately rendered, illusionistically full bust in pigmented polyester resin that has a front and a back but is fewer than ten centimetres deep, has just been finished. Also in the studio are the living-colour version of L. Faux (2000), a monumental, 3.5 times life-size portrait head in high relief; three of the busts in the No One - In Particular series (2001-2003), which are 1.5 times life-size; photographs of the No One - In Particular sculptures, which rather than documents are works of art in their own right; and Grey Murray (1995), a standing male nude, four-fifths life-size, that is cast in polyester resin.

That all of these sculptures are together at this moment is sheer happenstance. Nonetheless, as a group, they are telling of Penny's figurative practice. Since its inception, as evidenced by changes in sculptural form, scale and materials, Penny has been developing a dialectic between the artificial and the real, which is grounded in the rhetoric of realism and questions of representation, and takes shape in several guises. He presents what is real, the sculptural object, and what is artifice, the representation of the real, the aesthetic effect that the viewer's experience of the object constructs or reconstructs in the mind, and addresses the difference between them: at base, the problem of simulation and its discernment, which in everyday life becomes an ever more difficult perceptual gap to negotiate. What is real? What is not? Where do we stand in relation to these questions?

What is not in question, however, and has never been, is the fact that a Penny sculpture is absolutely unreal. Realism in sculpture, which fools no one beyond the double take, can only comment on its unreality. The detail is the hook that gives truth to the fiction and reveals it as fiction in the same breath. 3 To look attentively at realist or hyperrealist sculpture is to contemplate artifice and the uncanny. A similar case can be made about photography. As the German photographer Thomas Ruff has said, "Photography pretends to show reality. With your technique you have to go as near to reality as possible in order to imitate reality. And when you come so close then you recognize that, at the same time, it is not." 4

This, of course, is an artist acknowledging his artifice. When the viewer of some photographs and sculptures comes close to them, the sensation of the uncanny arises from the recognition that something taken for living or real is in fact inert matter. The duplicity is unnerving; the sensation of the uncanny is the eerie substitution for the presence of the lifelike. Taken too far, the uncanny, which Freud classified as an aesthetic effect of realism, can cause in the viewer a shudder of revulsion. 5 It is a paradox of Penny's sculpture and photographs that they continue to hold the feeling of the uncanny in tension with lifelike presentness even as you marvel at their obvious irreality, which is, of course, to say their lifelikeness.

If Penny's nearly obsessive registration of surface detail aligns his figurative sculpture with photography, his vision of the body and how it can be represented in sculpture has also been influenced by the camera's ability to reduce, magnify, fragment, compress, and distort what it portrays. Penny is in no way a Photorealist, but much of his sculpture is realist in the way that realist photography is: his sculpture shares the photographic genre's unflinching stare; harsh frontality; ordinary, unidealized subject matter; concern with appearances; pure description; apparent dispassion; inseparable link to the referent; and engagement with the social world. 6

To go deeper into the analogy, it has been argued that the sculptural mould is the equivalent of the photographic negative. "Sculpture and photography are intrinsically related because both are engendered from an internal association of negative and positive elements: the print is taken from a negative, the cast is made from a mould." 7 However, "They differ in that while the photograph has an indexical connection to its source, as well as to its negative, a sculpture has an indexical relation only to its mould and a representational association with its subject. A realist sculpture need only look like, not duplicate, its subject." 8 Some sculpture, like that of the Photorealists John de Andrea and Duane Hanson, who cast their work directly on the model's body, or Liz Magor's sculptures cast from man-made or natural objects, have the indexical connection to their sources and to the mould.

Penny's sculpture does not have this double connection; it is a constructed object. However, the mould's ability to duplicate the represented subject has allowed Penny to develop the mould as a creative part of his process. Not simply a device for replication, the mould becomes an agent of transformation through repetition and alteration. Here the photographic analogy remains pertinent. Penny's permutations of sculptural series made from the same mould or matrix is analogous to darkroom or digital manipulation. And, as we shall see, in the world of digital camera and computer imagery the significance of the indexical trace in photography becomes moot.


Penny's first interest in photography, then, is as an analogue for sculpture. Only later on does he begin to use it as a tool and as a rhetorical device, and, ultimately, to bring it into his practice as an independent medium tied inextricably to his sculpture. In the studio, Grey Murray (1995), which exists in two other versions, Blue Murray (1997) and the naturalistically coloured Murray (1998), is the link to Penny's earliest hyperrealist figures, works like Janet (1979-81), Norma (1979-81) Ali (1983) and Jim (1985). Like them, the figure of Murray is shown as a highly articulated, full-body portrait grounded in space, specific and, one feels, accurate to the minutest details of his extremities.

Penny's training at the then Alberta College of Art in Calgary from 1971 to 1975 was primarily under an old-school Swedish artist, Ole Holmsten, who taught rigorous academic figure modeling as the foundation of sculpture, and the Calgary sculptor Katie Ohe whose outlook was modernist and open to abstracted form and new ideas. All the same, both artists taught sculpture from the figure in a program oriented towards studio practice, life-class drawing, and craft. By the mid-1970s, however, abstraction had taken precedence as serious sculpture. Formalist abstraction, in particular, due to the influence Clement Greenberg exerted in Alberta through his connections with Edmonton and the Emma Lake Artists' Workshop in Saskatchewan, was attractive to ambitious young artists.

After he graduated from art college, Penny continued to make figurative work and experimented with abstraction, making models out of plexiglass and cardboard. In 1977, he attended an Emma Lake workshop in led by the British sculptor Anthony Caro. It was Caro, who, after seeing slides of Penny's representational work, encouraged him to return to the figure. He did so, but not until after he had completed a post-graduate year at ACA, much of which he spent working in welded steel. The modernist side of Penny's training had privileged the reduction of form as the route to its essence or core, while it deemed the detail and complexity of information as merely superficial. Besides, figurative sculpture was generally considered retrogressive and had fallen out of favour with the art world.

Penny's anxiety as a young artist was how to make figurative sculpture and still be contemporary. Two of the best-known realist sculptors at the time were associated with the Photorealist genre. Either of these American artists, de Andrea and Hanson, the latter of whom is enjoying renewed interest in the United States and Europe, might conceivably have served Penny as a model. But both of them, along with the other well-known figure sculptor, George Segal, cast their work from a mould made on the model's body. For Penny, taught in life-class to observe and model what he perceived, body casting was a reminder of the absence of life rather than the achievement of lifelike presence. Modeling a clay surface from life is for him the more powerful process.

"If the illusion of life is your goal," Penny says, "then you should be able to achieve it more effectively through a modeling process because with an indexical process you can only have less than what was there. It records what was there minus the other aspects that were the living, breathing dynamic. Whereas with modeling, a kind of consciousness is brought back into the work. It's the byproduct of many, many conscious decisions and they are all, whether you are aware of it or not, readable. There is a building of energy that compensates for the lack of life. The more informed and understood an object is, the more complex it is. The more decisions that go into its construction, the more layers of observation there are, the more conscious it becomes, the more intense and dense, and that is the stuff of the hyperreal."

For the viewer, on the other side of the sculpture, as it were, "a distinctively sculptural mode of viewing com(es) into play in the close, almost felt, exploration of the sculpture's surfaces. It is then that it comes alive. This coming alive results not, as in the Pygmalion story, because one's desire for the real body represented in the sculpture fires the illusion of lifelikeness to the point that it momentarily seems real, but because the sculpture is caught up in the ever shifting, living dynamic of one's perceptual exploration of it." 9

With insights like these at the heart of his early research, Penny approached the figure within a conception of modernism that eschewed narrative and overtly expressive subjectivity and partook of issues important to abstractionists, like working within the limits of systems, the potential of materials, and the effects of surface, colour, scale and presentation. To separate himself from the body casters, Penny worked at four-fifths life-size, reducing the figure and thus distancing it from the viewer. He tended to wait for his models to choose him: people he knew volunteered to pose. When they did, he asked them simply to find a relaxed position in which they could stand comfortably for long periods of time, thus allowing the models to establish their own body language as the basis of the sculpture's gesture. Procedures like these set limits and allowed Penny to avoid making aesthetic decisions, practices that again were more often associated with abstract or conceptual art. Portraying unidealized, ordinary human beings, the figures are neutral in both facial expression and physical posture.


At the same time, investing the figures with dense surface detail was tantamount to a subversive act that in modernist terms embraced the valueless and the insignificant. For Penny, "Surface detail is a profound indicator of what we are and as much a product of external interpretation as what is there." Like a lure, the detail draws the viewer in to examine it. Despite their neutral mein and their lack of Photorealist theatricality, the early figures like Janet, whose every surface imperfection is revealed, are not just bodies. They are vividly particular, individual presences, alert beings standing very still, who seem aware that they are being looked at, in Janet's case especially, as her contraposto pose suggests the life-class model. They are made for the eye, meant to be poured over, examined in every blemish and intimate crevase, appreciated by the gaze. One would have few opportunities to scrutinize another human being in this prolonged and distinctly unvoyeuristic way. Just as camera vision is unlike human vision, what Penny's sculpture shows us is not what is taken in by the restless, always mobile attention of the eye, but the product over time of the accumulated effects of the sustained gaze.

It seems evident that Penny felt challenged by Photorealism and the photograph to exert his own skill in besting not only the body casters but also the camera. Or rather, as has been said of the painter Philip Pearlstein, Penny "as far as possible, transformed himself into a camera." 10 To express their hyperreality, Penny's smaller-than-life nude figures have no need of 1:1 scale or of clothing, Hanson's "vestimentary realism." 11 And although, like the photograph, they are replete with detail, they are not confined by the photograph's flattened and compressed space.

What the two-dimensional photograph, taken in an instant and frozen in time, cannot do is to show the body in the round, a complex, constructed body in space that offers an ever changing aspect to the viewer who moves around the sculpture, re-enacting Penny's relationship to the model. "Making a figure is really about establishing relationships across a surface from multiple points of view, where you observe from a certain viewpoint and take a two-dimensional reading, then move to another viewpoint where you take another two-dimensional reading," Penny says, "like you would imagine making a computer drawing that constructs a three-dimensional rendering from many two-dimensional points of view."

The closest photographic analogue to one of Penny's fully three-dimensional figures is the hologram. In fact, this three-dimensional photographic image is invoked in the first overt reference to photography in Penny's oeuvre. It originates in the three-dimensional negative images created as optical illusions by the concave interiors of works like Mask (1990) and Screen (1994-98), in which moulds themselves are cast into sculptures that take the form of fragments of monumental heads. During the same exploratory period,13 photography becomes an integral part of Penny's process in the making of two series, the Skin Drawings (1990-97), greatly enlarged skin-texture patterns incised and inked into beeswax tablets, 12 and the Anamorph series (1996-97), large wall reliefs of distorted figures that appear either to be swimming into focus or dissolving into indeterminate space. 14


A headless Hellenistic Greek female torso in the Capitoline Museum, Rome; Bernini's David (1623); Rodin's Age of Bronze (1875-76); and Penny's own Grey Murray (1995), photographed as 35mm slides, are the sources of the Anamorph figures. In the series, Penny places himself in relation to history conceived of as a fluid space into which works of art recede and reemerge as strings of influences, all available to the most contemporary artist. The historical subjects recall Penny's Shadow series (1985-87), in which a naturalistically coloured, hyperrealist nude has as its Döppleganger an "antique" bronze figure, suggesting the allegorical birth of a new unidealized realism out of classicism.

To achieve the metaphor of the Anamorph series, a photographic idea, the anamorphic projection as an analogue of low-relief sculpture, and a photographic quality, distortion, are both brought into play in the conceptualization. Working into the clay through the slide projection, Penny found that the slide image, which not only was angled acutely but also was only partly in sharp focus, became progressively blurry and flattened, as if trying to slip from his grasp. Relationships of time, memory and desire, and of the body and its image are invoked in what might be the most elusively poetic of Penny's serial works.


Grey Murray, whose rooted gesture owes something to Rodin's St. John the Baptist (1878-80), was the first new, full-standing figure Penny had made in ten years, following a decade of fruitful experimentation. In the Monument series, the Skin Drawings, and the Anamorph series and a series of abstract Body Forms (1996-97), Penny was working out ideas about the figure and the body, and the differences between them. His conclusions are 1) that the body, a phenomenon of carnal existence, is a field upon which meaning is imposed, 2) that meaning is imposed on the body by representation or figuration, and 3) that all acts of representing the body are figurative acts, regardless of the form of representation. 15 It was also during this time, in 1989, that Penny began to work in film and television as a special-effects sculptor on movies like Jacob's Ladder (1990), Johnny Mnemonic (1994) and Nixon (1995) and the TV series Robo Cop (1994). 16

These combined experiences led Penny back to the figure, but his thinking about figuration and its possibilities took a new direction, intensifying his exploration of the relationship of sculpture and photography. Penny chose the monochrome colouration of Grey Murray as a reference to black-and-white photography, in an attempt to extend the photographic idea into more aspects of the standing figure. The assertive three-dimensionality of the figure in the round overrides this reading. But a potential resolution to the problem of bringing the photographic more fully into a three-dimensional hyperrealist sculpture suggested itself after Penny saw the exhibition Artificial: Figuraciones Contemporànies in Barcelona.

The year, 1998, was significant in Penny's work. In Barcelona, he encountered the work of German photographer Thomas Demand, who constructs interiors out of cardboard and paper and photographs them, and works by Thomas Ruff - Portrait (1988), a set of six large colour photographs - and the Swiss artist Stephan Hablutzel - Two Heads (1993-94), a very large two-part sculpture. 17 Even more importantly, later that same year, Penny became aware through reproductions of the Australian-born sculptor Ron Mueck's work in the exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. Mueck, who had been a puppet-maker and had made models for television and print advertising, upped the ante for Penny on the use of hyperrealistic effects. Mueck's highly particularized heads and figures have hair, stubble, eyeballs, and visible pores, effects Penny used regularly in his film work but had kept separate from his art. Now he could see that "I had to bring all of my resources together in one basket."

At the time, Penny was beginning work on the L. Faux project (2000-2001). Looking at Ruff's photographic portraits and Hablutzel's sculptural heads juxtaposed in a gallery, it had struck him, he later wrote, that "each artist's project had the momentary effect of 'collapsing' the authenticating mechanisms of the other's. The photograph's illusion of life was diminished by the 'thereness' of the sculpture, while the sculptures, in turn, loomed too literally large, giving way for the mediated space of the photographic illusion to reaffirm itself." 18 To bring the visual codes of photography into three-dimensions in the L. Faux project, Penny chose the form of the portrait bust and emphasized the bust's frontality while radically compressing the volume of the head. From the cheekbones to just behind the ear, the lateral depth is reduced by more than half, and the back of the head, which in the frontal view is screened by soft hair, is simply not there. Looked at head on from a distance, the four monumental portrait busts, which are "cropped" in the format of the standard ID photograph, like a Ruff portrait, appear at first to be fully in the round. Historically, the sombre, dignified L. Faux recalls the realist portrait busts of Roman noble women and empresses of the First Century. From the side view, however, it is clear that the powerful face with its intense eyes, straight-ahead gaze and parted lips is a like a facade. The head is in high relief, like a face mask, which occupies an ambidextrous space between the two dimensional and the three.


The series is titled for the model, Libby Faux, whose surname is pronounced Fox but puns fortuitously on the French word "faux," meaning imitation or false. Identity and its ambiguities, both of persons and of mediums, would seem to be a major theme of the series, but its complexities and references multiply with each permutation, for each of the Libbys is strikingly different in character. The first three sculptures are taken from the same mould. The first, L. Faux (Colour), is naturalistically and warmly coloured, her lined and wrinkled skin, the prismatic architecture of her flesh, and the tool marks visible on the surface, all asking for inspection. At close range, however, the head becomes overwhelming, too huge to be taken in at once, showing far more detail than the unaided eye normally sees. The viewer can only scan it, reading its details like a topography, getting lost in them like an infant gazing into its mother's face. The experience of intimacy in relation to a face so large is unexpected, as surprising as it is engaging.

From a distance, the frontal aspect of L. Faux (Colour) yields the view one would expect from the image of a photograph, flattened by camera optics. L. Faux (Black and White) reaffirms this, giving an even stronger account of the photographic in its mimicry of the light and dark contrasts of a black-and-white photograph. L. Faux (White), which despite the halo of hair recalls the plaster cast and the white neo-classical bust, reemphasizes the sculptural by allowing a clearer reading of the formal structures of the work's surface. It is at the same time wraithlike, an apparition veering off into the world of the supernatural.

The last of the Libbys, L. Faux (Tri-X), made in 2001, brings the photographic and the sculptural together in an unsettling, surreal tour de force. The photographic analogue of the work, very difficult to achieve in a physical material medium, is the triple exposure, in which three transparent images are overlaid. Penny worked out the new head on what remained of the original Libby clay, using as reference materials L. Faux (Colour) and a photograph of L. Faux (Colour) that was transformed into a triple exposure in the Adobe program Photoshop on a computer, his first experience with digital imaging. The sculptural transformation is unique, literally amazing. Every part of L. Faux (Tri-X) appears as if it is vibrating with an internal motion so powerful that the features are being shaken into dissolution even as you try, unsuccessfully, to look at them. 19 For L. Faux (Tri-X) retards the eye, refusing to allow it to settle on any oscillating detail or part.

This might seem an abrupt departure for an artist who has made a career of constructing salient details for the eye, but it is in the details again and in the complexity of their relationships that Penny achieves the extraordinary effects of L. Faux (Tri-X). "When you have a multiple exposure, you are not repeating the same image three times because each image is folded over the other one," he says. "Each time the relationship of the details is different; each image has different information feeding into it. So despite the implied repetition every shape you are sculpting is different." The face, which will not allow anyone to look upon it, recalls the Medusa, but it is the apparent motion of a static object that produces a sensation of the uncanny that invokes the monstrous.

Although narrative, if not overt, always lurks in the backgroud of realist art, Penny is not a storyteller. In fact, he calls himself a formalist. However, his serial works like the Shadow series, the Anamorphs and the L. Faux sculptures do suggest tropes such as allegory and metaphor. For all its formal explorations of the operations of photographic visual codes in three-dimensional sculpture, the L. Faux series might be read, very differently, or simultaneously, as aspects of the same woman moving from glowing good health to disintegration, or from mother/goddess to monster. The portrait's specificity induces the narrative train of thought that suggests such passages or characters. But in any case, the narrative implications arise from the relationships among the works considered in series rather than individually.


The more recent series, No One - In Particular (2001-04), develops the idea of character against the backdrop of narrative potential: how we live today. Again based on the format of the ID photograph, the more generalized high-relief busts in this series are, as the title suggests, fictitious portraits conceptualized as clip art, bits and pieces of faces Penny has observed on the street or in magazine photographs. Like most invented portraits, they have the look of aliens, Sims or MUD characters. 20 Penny has cast them in fleshy silicone, their faces are flatter and coarser, and their details are overlays of skin-texture imprints rather than the constructed results of close observation. Smaller than the Libbys, but still larger than life (by 1.5 times), these characters switch gender and identity with changes of hair styles, facial hair and colouring. Their individuality lies in their suggestion of a character, and they wear clothes. But, their vestimentary realism does not boost their reality quotient as it does for Duane Hanson's type-cast figures.

Like an actor's costume, the fragmentary clothing enhances the idea of a character while at the same time resisting type and suggesting that identity is a social construction: the blonde in the white sweater (No One - In Particular #8), the middle-aged suburbanite in the striped polo shirt (No One - In Particular #6). The No One - In Particulars might have emerged from that parallel universe on the other side of the screen of the television set or the computer. Like receptacles waiting to be filled with meaning, they speak to the mutability of identity and the body in the 21st Century, attended by comestic surgery, bio-genetic engineering, digital imaging, the Internet, virtuality, cyberspace, and to how our ideas about identity and perceptions of the world are affected by such forces.

Penny brought photography into his sculpture as a subject with the realization that his interest lay in the surface of things; formally, the abstracted L. Faux and No One - In Particular reliefs are about surface as the locus of appearances. Penny's large format photographs of these works reverses the relationship in a rhetoric of substitution, making his sculpture the subject of photography. In fact, sculpture is one of photography's first subjects, and it has been said, "To confront sculpture with a camera endures as a primitive passion." The photographer "reminds us, too, of how naked sculpture may become depending on the gaze - that it is subject to whatever we care to bring to it, which in the end is everything the modern imagination can dream up. But especially photography of sculpture reveals undreamed-of sides of the conjuring mind in its power to elucidate private lives lodged within dormant materials." 21

Bringing this element into play, the uncanny of photography, Penny's photographs take on a double life. From a distance, their subjects are so realistic we mistake them for photographs of people. Thomas Ruff's portraits of typical, anonymous (to us) people condition us to make this perceptual error, and Penny's photographs, especially of the No One - In Particular series, play consciously on Ruff's work as well as on the ID photo. As well, there was the example of the American sculptor Charles Ray's No (1992). Penny positions himself between Mueck and Ray. No is ostensibly a self-portrait of the artist with his arms crossed. But, no. Taken of a mannequin wearing body casts of Ray's face and hands and a red shirt, the convincing No is a photograph of a sculpture.


Of paramount importance is the photograph's affect on the sculptural illusion. In Penny's photographs, the images of the sculptures are coincident with the optical camera distortions built into the reliefs. This restores the sense of their volumes and enhances the effect of their hyperrealism. In the compressed space of the photograph, the subjects in the photographs appear more "real" than the sculptures do. The viewer's attention to the photograph then oscillates constantly between the image of the sculptural object and its convincing lifelike appearance. The same is true of the photograph of Gerry, an undistorted, fully in the round bust portrait whose animated gesture is meant to invoke the photographic moment.

The L. Faux, No One - In Particular and Gerry photographs are among Penny's most satisfying works. However, they are hardly preparation for the next reversal up Penny's sleeve. The comically attenuated head entited Stretch , which has morphed into Alice In Wonderland proportions because of who knows what pressures, signals Penny's adventure into the body-warping dynamics of cyberspace. The sculptural analogue shifts in Stretch from photography to Photoshop. Imagine the huge, stretched silicone head as a No One - In Particular undergoing a tremendous distortion that contravenes the normal laws of the physical universe. "Stretch" was a transformation command in the earliest versions of Photoshop; executed on a human being the effect would be monstrous. Seen as caricature, the male head, with its floppy black forelock, elliptical blue pupils, puckered pearly pink lips, and stubble growing out of smooth, luminous skin, is amusing and accessible. But if it is true, that we experience figurative sculpture on a subconscious level with a reciprocating bodily response, the effect is discomfitting if not alarming. It brings the existentialism of an attenuated Giacometti head into the darker, ungrounded irreality of cyberspace.

Penny has also made photographs of Stretch. One, which is the same size as the sculpture, duplicates the physical distortion of the sculpture with a heightened sense of the image's hyperreality. The other, which is the same size as the No One - In Particular photographs, offers an undistorted image of the Stretch character. Paradoxically, it is a photograph of a sculpture that does not exist anywhere but in virtuality. In this case, Photoshop, by compressing a photograph of the sculpture into the dimensions of the normal, rights its own imagined world. In the trajectory of Penny's work of the past 24 years, the dialectic between the artificial and the real simply becomes more and more complex, never less so, while its deeper subject remains the changing nature of "reality."

Nancy Tousley, 2004



  1. Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (New York: The Viking Press, 1977), p. 29. In the passage quoted from, Krauss is writing about Rodin.
  2. These works were in Penny's Dupont Street studio in Toronto on August 6 and 7, 2003, during which time Penny and I talked about his work. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations attributed to the artist have been taken from those tape-recorded interviews.
  3. See Naomi Schor, "Duane Hanson: Truth in Sculpture," in Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York and London: Methuen, 1987).
  4. See Philip Pocock, "Thomas Ruff," interview in Journal of Contemporary Art 6.1 (1993). Accessed online at www.jca-online.com/ruff.html, August, 2003.
  5. See Sigmund Freud, "The 'Uncanny' " in The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, ed. Bruce Grenville, (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery/Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001), 58-94.
  6. See Emma Dexter, "Photography Itself," in Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth Century Photograph (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), pp. 15-27.
  7. Philip Monk, "Playing Dead: Between Photography and Sculpture," in Liz Magor (Toronto and Vancouver: The Power Plant and the Vancouver Art Gallery, 2002), p. 65.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 37.
  10. Linda Nochlin, "Realism Now," in Super Realism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battock (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1975), p. 117. Pearlstein, who works from live models, adamantly separated himself from the Photorealist painters.
  11. Schor, pp. 138.
  12. To make the Skin Drawings, Penny took small clay impressions of his skin, details of various parts of his body, cast them in plaster and photographed the small, square, plaster casts with a macro lens. The next step was to project slides of the casts onto the blank beeswax tablets and incise the patterns into the wax, drawing in the dark. Afterward, Penny filled in the pattern lines with ink.
  13. In the making of these series of works, Penny, in the absence of likeminded figurative artists, was conducting a dialogue on the figure quite literally with himself. Modernists validated the figure as fragment, but denigrated the detail, whereas a philosopher like Hegel saw them in a mutually reinforcing relationship. Why? Naomi Schor looks to Freud and proposes a series of binary oppositions: "the fragment is to the detail as the ancient is to the modern, as depth is to surface, as scarcity is to surplus, and as construction is to interpretation. In other words, whether implicitly or explicitly, the fragment always refers to an archaeological model and the detail to the psychopathology of everyday life." Even more significantly for Schor, Freud connotes the detail as feminine. See Reading in Detail, pp. 66-67. Hence, in Shor's theory, the detail's lack of status. Hence, in Penny's work, his exploration of an archaeological model, in his deconstructions of the Monument series and the pairings of the Shadow series, and his pursuit of pure detail, detached from context, in the Skin Drawings.
  14. The anamorphic series was created by projecting slides of statues onto prepared clay palettes at a raked angle, mimicking the effects of an anamorphic lens, and sculpting the distorted image in low relief.
  15. Penny's interest in the question of their difference was how to resolve for himself the opposition between the recuperation of the body in contemporary art and concurrent reactions to the figure as an out-moded form of representation.
  16. Penny's special effects work includes a dozen movies, the most recent being X-Men 2 (2003) and X-Men (2000), directed by Brian Singer, and David Cronenberg's ExistenZ (1999). His work with FXSmith in Toronto pioneered the making of make-up prosthetics in silicone, a material that appears on film for the first time in their make-up for Gordon Tootoosis for Legends of the Fall (1994), directed by Edward Zwick. In 2001, Penny began to use silicone, a material favoured by his closest contemporary and colleague, the British artist Ron Mueck, in his own work.
  17. Artificial: Figuracions Contemporànies was on view at the Museu d'Art Contemporani, Barcelona, the organizing institution.
  18. Evan Penny, "The 'Libby' Project: A Descriptive Statement," unpublished, n.d.
  19. The vibrating effect of L. Faux (Tri-X) has an antecedent in Penny's work on the film Jacob's Ladder in 1989, for which he was asked to create a monstrous vibrating head.
  20. See www.thesims.ea.com. The Sims, short for simulations, is a popular computer game in which players design personas or characters and their houses in order to participate in a parallel online community. For basic information about MUDs, go to www.lysator.liu.se/mud/faq/faq1.html. The web page explains: "A MUD (Multiple User Dimension, Multiple User Dungeon, or Multiple User Dialogue) is a computer program which users can log into and explore. Each user takes control of a computerized persona/avatar/incarnation/character."
  21. Eugenia Parry Janis, The Kiss of Apollo: Photography & Sculpture 1845 to the Present (San Francisco: Fraenkel Gallery, in association with Bedford Arts Publishers, 1991), p. 11. Penny's photographs of the L. Faux and No One - In Particular sculptures relate directly to the history of the photography of sculpture in their resemblance to photographs of Roman bust portraits taken in the 19th century by Fratelli Alinari, which was founded in 1852 and is the oldest photography firm in the world. I an indebted to the Vancouver photography collector Claudia Beck for this observation.