Mixed Doubles: The Evan Penny Gift: Part 2

Installation image of the exhibition “Mixed Doubles: The Evan Penny Gift”
exhibited at the Art Gallery of Windsor in the fall of 2020. Photography by Frank Piccolo, Windsor, ON, GXZ Design Inc.

Last week, we posted the first half of curator Nancy Tousley’s essay, Mixed Doubles: The Evan Penny Gift. Read on to see the second half of this essay and learn more about artist Evan Penny!

Penny has worked in a conscious dialogue with art history, ancient and modernist, throughout his career. His intention as an artist has never been to fool the eye for the few seconds a ’70s Hyperrealist sculpture can hold it. Instead he engages the eye and holds it in the dialectical crux of realism: the vacillating tension between what is real (the sculptural object) and what is artificial (the aesthetic illusion). It is their synthesis that illuminates how we see ourselves, each other and the world. In the 15 years between The Shadow Series (1985–86) and The Libby Project (2000–2005), Penny deconstructed the body in an investigation of what constitutes figuration. To do this he made series of works — Skin Drawings, Masks, Anamorphs, Body Forms — that addressed the body as parts or fragments. Photography came into his process first as the slides he used in making the Skin Drawings and the Anamorphs, while the three-dimensional negative images of the Masks, optical illusions created by the concave interiors of moulds cast as fragments of monumental heads, evoked the hologram.

Not until The Libby Project, which focuses on the face, does photography enter Penny’s work as an art form. The format it takes is the head shot. Our tendency is to see the face as that part of the body in which the self, identity and the individual are located. Penny’s first photographs were the five he made of The Libby Project sculptures of 2000–2001, two of which — L. Faux: Lifesize (2001) and L. Faux (Colour of Black and White) (2001) — are included in the Penny gift. The large head-and-shoulders busts in the series are 3.5 times life-size, as are the images in their photographs. They reference but deviate from the traditional head-and-shoulders portrait bust as Penny’s interests lie elsewhere.

The series is named after the model for the sculptures, Libby Faux, whose surname is spelled like the French word for “fake,” but is pronounced like the English word “fox.” Thus L. Faux points to le faux, the fake or imitation. L. Faux: Lifesize depicts Libby Faux and reads as an informal portrait of a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman dressed in street clothes. One might think of her as the “real” woman; If not for its size, this photograph could be the head shot on a passport or an ID card. The photograph of L. Faux (Colour of Black and White) is a life-size version of the 3.5-times-life-size photograph of the sculpture. In this image, the model has been transformed into the work of art. As a pair the photographs, which read as real-life v. mythology, are doubles of the artist’s model and the artwork made on the model, while each photograph is also the double of a sculpture.

That both of these photographs are life-size likenesses of Libby Faux asks for comparison and for acknowledgement of the powers of art to transform its subject. It points also to the fact that each photograph is a double not only of a sculpture but also of the original sitter. In theory, each doubling increases the distance between the viewer and the artwork but in the case of the works in The Libby Project, doubling by photography produces an unexpected result. Although twice removed from Libby Faux, the photographs of the sculptures, which are frontal, give their images a different life. They are more convincing than the sculptures. This is due in part to the human scale, in part to the reality effect of photography and in part to the optical effects Penny built into the sculptures. For he positioned them not in three-dimensional space but in the shallow space between an image and an object by flattening the face and rapidly compressing the volume of the head behind it. Taken of a sculpture head-on, a photograph fills the gaps in an illusion of volume, as does the gift’s L. Faux (Colour of Black and White), a colour photograph of the black-and-white iteration of the large black-and-white sculpture in The Libby Project.

Penny based the scale of the big Libby heads on that of Thomas Ruff’s large colour portrait photographs of the 1980s. Moreover he plays out the relationships of the monumental Libby sculptures to different types of photography. The Libby’s that Penny made in 2000–2001 refer to photographs produced with colour film and black-and-white film, and in 2004–2005 to photographs produced with grainy high-speed Tri-X film and misregistered colour film. In The Libby Project, doubling is doubled with the conceptual layering of model, sculpture, photography (photographic optics), and photographic processes. The overlay of a film process through colour also affects how we might read into the faces of L. Faux as maternal here or monstrous there, wraithlike or a goddess.

The two life-size Libby photographs in the gift, the realist sculpture and its model, further suggest the doppelganger through their likeness. But there is another consideration in this occurrence of doubling. Penny embodies the relationship between model and artwork in the two photographs and together they implicate the viewer. The realist sculpture can be read as the inanimate doppelganger of a living person or, more generally, another human being, and so bears this relationship to its viewer as well. The frisson of the uncanny arises in the instant when we realize that what we have taken for an image of a human being is not human at all.

This sense of the uncanny signals the important difference between the No One — In Particular series of head-and-shoulder portrait busts and the Libby sculptures, which they follow. The No One — In Particular’s are flattened and compressed like the Libby’s, but here there are no human models or “originals” behind the scenes. Rather than doubles, the 1.5 times life-size sculptures are portraits of people who do not exist. The faces of the No One — In Particular’s are composite physiognomies made up of individual features that Penny took note of in people passing him on the street, came across in magazine photos or imagined in the process of sculpting a face. Like the Libby’s and for the same reasons, the photographs are true doppelgangers that hold the tell that they are uncanny simulations longer than the sculptures do. For all their individuation, the tell is the emptiness in their faces. Born in the era of Photoshop, which Penny plays upon, something about these Frankensteinian creatures seems alien or nonhuman and our sensory perceptions pick this up before our thinking brains do.

As portraits of people who do not exist, they raise the question: What is portraiture? Each bust is the same size and wears the same neutral expression. By definition, a portrait is the representation of a person. Can portraiture in the visual arts, a realist genre, be fictionalized or does its designation depend on the particularity that is derived from the source of the depiction? By this measure the No One — In Particular are not portraits per se but rather are portrait-like constructions which are about portraiture. They are caricatural inventions. Nonetheless the No One — In Particular’s have something to say about identity and its stability at a time when people feel they can role play and reinvent themselves.

Penny sculpted the entire Series #1 on one clay bust, making three different sculpted images with three (or in one case two) variations of each, to produce 17 sculptures in total. In one sense they, like twins and triplets, all have the same DNA. Each has the same geometric triangle formed by the eyes and mouth, giving them an odd family resemblance. At the same time, each is differentiated by eye and hair colouring, hair style and clothing, attributes that lead viewers to speculate on their personality and character. The first one in the series is male, while the second, cast on the same clay, is female. Genders shift and markers of identity in the series are fluid.

Testing the tension between individuality and type, realist representation and caricature, and ourselves and the other, the No One — In Particular series reflects current social and cultural ideas about unstable or changing identities as well as a digital culture that enables experimentation, transformation and dissembling. How far the latter can go is visible at thispersondoesnotexist.com where high-resolution faces of no one in particular that have been created by an artificial intelligence algorithm are posted. Penny’s constructions, resolved in the actuality of the photographs, were prescient mirrors of contemporary life.

The No One — In Particular series is represented in the gift by eight photographs from Series 1 and Series 2. In the exhibition, these photographs joined the sculpture, No One — In Particular #3, Series 1 (2001), from the AGW collection and, the loan, No One — In Particular #1, Series 1 (2001), the photograph of the first sculpture in the series. Thus the exhibition contained the first triplets of Series 1 and the three photographs of the (Fat) No One — In Particular, Series 2 (2006) sculpture, which are two times life-size. It also includes the last photograph in Series 1. When Penny began the series in 2001 he was not thinking about digital technology beyond Photoshop and its relationship to photography brought into three dimensions. Two years later, however, with the Stretch series, he was addressing the digital directly. At each artistic turn in the years bracketed by the gift, Penny extended the discourse within his work that has become the foundation of his work since then.

A single figure was not enough to carry a discourse that two figures could initiate through juxtaposition and comparison and that the juxtapositions of series could carry forward. The ultimate dialectical doubling, however, is that of sculpture and photograph, which makes a hybrid of both mediums in which the artificial and the real coexist, only to raise a question that is increasingly crucial to contemporary like. What is real and what is not? It strikes at the core of how we live and what we believe.

The Art Gallery of Windsor (AGW) is a non-profit public art gallery that uses the power of art to open hearts and minds to new ideas.