Evan Penny - Reviews & Essays

reviews and essays

On scanning, or skewing off into virtual space

Evan Penny, as interviewed by Nancy Tousley

Evan Penny’s Self: variation #2 (2009) is unlike any sculpture he has made before. The head-and-shoulders self-portrait of the Toronto artist is a fully three-dimensional bust that is considerably larger than life, intensely realistic and radically distorted.

It is so different because it is the result of a scanning process, technology that is increasingly being explored by artists (see Karin Sander in blog Four Portraits, or varieties of photographic experience), Self is a concrete object that comes to us from virtual space. Oddly fluid, it appears to warp in space as a viewer changes position in relation to it.

Embodying the contemporary idea that the self is an unfixed, ever changing entity, the portrait refuses to provide a stable or “normal” view of itself. Though the scanner captures a particular moment in time, as the photograph does, Penny draws that moment out in the relationship between the viewer and the portrait, as the portrait seems to shift in time. Here there is no decisive moment.

Penny showed Self: variation #1 at his New York gallery, Sperone Westwater, last winter. Self: variation #2 (2009) is on view in his Calgary gallery, TrépanierBaer, through June 20.

The following is part of a conversation with Evan Penny
that took place on May 11:

Nancy Tousley: Tell me about the scanner.

Evan Penny: That’s the newest development in the work. I think it’s been coming for a while, but I just hadn’t had time to pay attention to it.

It’s an extension of the interest I have in photography in relation to the work and also to mechanical reproduction. I think one feature of it is, obviously, the growing awareness of the capability of reproducing three-dimensional objects through a digital process, a digital and then a milling or output process, like either rapid prototyping or CMC milling. (CMC stands for ceramic matrix composites used in industry).

It immediately raises the question as to Why would I continue doing what I do when parallel or equivalent types of images can be generated mechanically? So to some degree, it’s my enquiry into that relationship. I guess the starting off point for me was what is the state of the art of that technology relative to the kind of things I do?

What can it do, what can it offer me and at what stage in that process will I have to intervene in order to take it to the place where I like to take the images? In other words, what can it offer me and what can I offer it? I was wanting to get a sense of what that territory was, and hoping that potentials would be revealed to me for why I would want to use it beyond that.

So this piece is generated initially by getting a body scan done of your head and shoulders. Where did you do that?

I did that in Los Angeles. I looked for the company that I thought would be able to give me the best quality. I wanted to know what the state of the art was and this company does a lot of work for the film industry. I thought that should be a place where they are pushing this technology. So I went down and got my upper torso scanned and then spent a few hours with the technician there taking that file, which is now a large digital file, and manipulating it in a software program, which is where the distortion comes from.

Then we essentially printed it, or milled it with a CMC milling machine in soft urethane foam. That gave the general impression of my features at the particular moment that was captured with the scan. I’d hoped it might be more detailed but as it turned out it was quite a generalized, kind of crude, rudimentary type of image, although it captures the gesture and the essence of the moment, which is very interesting to me.

When I got that piece of foam back to the studio, I made a mould of it and recast that into modeling clay, which I could then rework. I cast it back into clay because I just didn’t want to add surface detail to this foam, I felt I needed to carve back into it and rebuild it from a core, a deeper sort of place in the object, because the forms were so generalized.

The scanner sees surface only and it misses a lot of the kind of complexity of the structure. So it was a fairly significant sculpting process that I had to take it through. Of course, once that’s done I have to make another mould and cast it in silicone. So it definitely didn’t turn out to be a short cut, let’s put it that way.

So to be scanned did you stand or sit in a room where there were cameras?

This technology was not camera-based. There are scanning technologies that are camera-based, where you stand and there would be cameras all around you and they would fire simultaneously. This was a laser-based process. The everyday frame of reference would be scanning your groceries at grocery stores. It’s like a band that you pass the object over. In this case, I would stand still on a platform and this structure would just scan down and it would create a line all the way around me to collect information.

This would be a different kind of scanning process than you would use if you were wanting to reproduce an object. One of the difficulties with . . . one of the limitations of this particular process is that I am a living, moving, breathing, semi-translucent kind of thing, whatever, and it doesn’t see that kind of thing very well. It has to move quickly because I’m going to move otherwise the information will become distorted and also it doesn’t see flesh as well as it might see a hard white form. So if for instance I did a body cast of myself in plaster then that could be scanned very slowly and pick up a lot more detail. Maybe the best way to imagine it is as the difference between a very high-resolution digital file and a really low-resolution jpg. It’s still a massive file but it’s very generalized.


It can only record so much so you have to be willing to work with whatever that limitation was. There are a lot of distortions in here that don’t have to do with the way I was pulling it in the computer, it just has to do with the way the scanner saw me when it scanned.

You know, Self doesn’t really look a whole lot like you.

You don’t think so?

Well, not from this angle.

Although, again, in many ways, it’s very accurate because it is mechanically produced and on a certain level very accurate.

The thing about this one, too, is that this pulls the work much more into the three-dimensional again. My work of the past 10 years has been tied to the photographic, to the image, and to a relationship to the two-dimensional, so there has always been this idea of a pictorial space that defines the work.

This one really is not built around a pictorial idea. There is no perspective, no flattening out. It is more like a rhomboid, a three-dimensional volume that’s skewed in space. It’s fully three-dimensional, so there is no single vantage point that you might expect in a pictorial representation where it comes back into alignment and is not distorted. This is distorted from every angle, which is partly what makes it interesting and potentially difficult as well, and also the part that does not allow it ever to become an accurate portrait.

I think it looks most like you on the most distorted angle.

Which is curious. There would be a bit of a pictorial feature if you imagine a cube, which has a front, sides and a back., In the software program I would essentially have to build a gridded cube around the image in order to distort it. You can imagine a frontal plane. This would have been the dominant frontal plane from this angle. So if there is a kind of an equivalent of a PhotoShop skew, it would be on this angle.

So as one sees in “making of” shows on TV, you had a gridded 3-d form that you could turn?


Is it like what’s used in computer animation?

Variations on that sort of an idea. You have a structure, whether it’s based on a linear one or ... I’m not sure what else it could be, so that you can then turn the object and push and pull it at points to change the shape.

This piece is really different from your other work.

Yeah, it’s quite different and I think that’s what’s so intriguing about it. It kind of points to a lot of things in my previous work and also to where I can take my relationship to portraiture. The question of portraiture lies underneath most of this work. Ironically in a way, I have always had a very ambivalent relationship to portraiture, partly because I have found it so confounding. My overwhelming orientation has been towards a very prolonged observational process using models. I build through many hours of observation of the model with the intention that I’m going to build a very complex and specific structure.

One of the ironies of that experience is that even though these more and more specifically resemble the subject, they don’t necessarily express the subject well. Or they don’t necessarily feel like the person I’m rendering. Or they go in their own direction, they skew off into a kind of territory that becomes quite unlike the subject, it becomes about something else.

So depending on what you’re looking for, you can be very frustrated with that. Or you can say This really isn’t about this person, it’s really about the exploration of complex structure or, at the very least, it’s about this relationship that evolves over 400 hours, what someone looks like not after 400 hours of observation, but what someone looks like in 400 hours of observation. It’s something where you are accumulating, being very specific at every moment along the way.

Yes, the process builds in duration.

That’s right. It’s encoded into the work, which becomes a portrait unlike other portraits. There are things it does but there are also things it doesn’t do. One of the things that would tend to happen with my work is it would tend to neutralize. The posture would simplify and the expression would essentially neutralize. And I think that’s really a function of 400 hours: what someone looks like, feels like in 400 hours, not after. They don’t look tired, they don’t look like they’re fresh either, they just look like they’re in this prolonged state of being.

What became apparent very quickly with this work is the scanning process captures a moment just as a photographic snapshot would capture a moment, which is very unlike my previous work, and opens it up now to the possibility of a kind of relationship to portraiture that wasn’t available to me before.

Nancy Tousley with Evan Penny, 2009