A Field of Interpretation:
The Work of Evan Penny
by Meeka Walsh
The particular rather than the general, the detail rather than the whole, metonymy rather than mimesis - Evan Penny's "Skin" series.
The anti-heroic, vulnerable, unbuttressed fragment. Contemporary art practice's preoccupation with the uncompleted art work. The open-ended, the piece or portion, the shard or part.
Fragments of a recent conversation, phrases reflecting on the early three-dimensional figurative sculpture. Evan Penny: "to override the reductive impulses," "to be attentive to specifics," "reducing the gesture to nothing in terms of narrative," "to treat every area the same as every other area," "the refusal of monumentality."
Penny talks about surface, recognizing, in looking back at his work, that even the most "rigorously three-dimensional" work, pieces like Female Shadow Grouping and Jim, in terms of assembly, in terms of the work's aesthetic quality, were interpreted through their surfaces. The substructure, the armature, the volume, are read on the surface, on the skin, as it were. Think here of an awareness of muscle and recognize that its presence, its underwater ripple, is assumed beneath or through its skin covering.
For Penny, with the shift in interest from the three-dimensional, fully modelled work to the two-dimensional linear "Skin" series, came the recognition that the subject was charged, that its articulation crackled with the possibilities of interpretation. The project, in the "Skin" works, was to determine how long meaning could be suspended; the tension grew out of the need to create sufficient space for the clamour to be voiced and distance enough for the silence of possibilities.
How long - when what you're looking at, talking about, and touching, is skin, how long - can meaning be suspended? And can the distance from subject, that Penny sought, be achieved? It's a challenge. In The Symptom of Beauty (Harvard University Press, 1994), Francette Pacteau quotes Freud: "The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface," and, "the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those springing from the surface of the body. It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body." How far away then, can we get from the skin and what distance is possible for Penny when the cutaneous surface he is transcribing is his own.
The topic precludes distance; perhaps a measure of this work's appeal is the inevitable elastic tension. Both anonymous and as intensely personal as say, a fingerprint; so easily rent it can be pierced by the smallest sharp pressure but at the same time the covering that separates us entirely from the world; an index for determining admission or exclusion, abuse or privilege. Intact it holds us inviolable, perforated it invites disease; unmarked it promises health, blemished or ulcerated it stigmatizes; stretched taut across a drum it receives messages thrummed by the world around it, tattooing to communicate hello, I love you, welcome or, with an inked tattoo, singling out for control, or death, or less drastically, membership, or avowal (Mother), or beauty. The spring-loaded tension of the topic, the tension of revealing only something, withholding full disclosure - a slit in a narrow skirt, the ripped place in a concealing garment - Penny, in wanting to suspend meaning, allows for all that. And knows too, I'd bet, about the associations of skin separated from its support, temporarily freed of its covering, enclosing task - flayed and bloody and available and horrible - think of Titian's Flaying of Marsyas. With understatement Penny says about the "Skin" work, "It's like taking figuration and just spreading its implications out a bit."
A plaster cast is made of a portion of his body (usually a joint); a slide of the cast is made then projected onto a sheet of beeswax. Using a sharp wax-modelling tool but scribing blind, moving tactiley Penny traces the light onto a surface. At this point no pigment has been laid down, the inscription can be read by hand only, like Braille. Then an oil stick is rubbed into the surface and rubbed off. The crevices carry the message, like a life's history read in the lines of a face. "There's no virtuosity in the project," Penny says, "no room for refinement."
It's only here in the technical aspect of the work that the artist can say he has distanced himself from a certain kind of decision-making because, however uninflected the segment or section of subject skin may be, the larger topic remains freighted, laden with implications.
"The skin is a code," he says, "and the whole body is a field of interpretation." "It's about language," he says, "about how we structure things in our culture and how we understand who we are."
The poet Michael Ondaatje writes about the implication of scars, their indelible impressions on the skin and the stories they ought, with their permanence, to carry. Through the use of repetition, through the smallest alteration of detail, Penny creates a narrative, something he describes as kinesthetic. This kinesthesia, this minimal sense of position and movement creates a space in which we can pause, recognizing here Michael Ondaatje's "time around scars."
Meeka Walsh, 1995