Mixed Doubles: The Evan Penny Gift: Part 1
In our last article, we posted an excerpt from the essay Mixed Doubles: The Evan Penny Gift, written by curator Nancy Tousley. Interested in learning more? We’ve posted the first half of the essay below for you to read. Check back in next week to read the second half!
Doubling, often encountered as a likeness or a multiplication times two, has been a driving force in Evan Penny’s art for some 40 years, both as an idea and as physical fact. Doubling is inherent in the style of his art. The Toronto-based artist is well known in Canada and abroad as a hyperrealist sculptor and artist-photographer and realism is a style widely understood as having a direct connection to the visible material world. For every realist sculpture there is an implied model just as there is for every realist photograph. Penny works from a model in both mediums, whether it is a living person in relation to sculpture or one of his own sculptures in relation to photography. There are other kinds of doubling in Penny’s art as well, all of which reveal him to be a conceptualist. Doubling is a source of his work’s impact and its meaning.
The choice of doubling as the theme of the exhibition, Mixed Doubles: The Evan Penny Gift, arose from thinking about a subject that would include all of the works — two sculptures and nine photographs — that comprise Penny’s significant 2015 donation to the Art Gallery of Windsor. The gift represents three major series of works — the Shadow Series, The Libby Project and the No One — In Particular Series #1 and #2 — from an important period from 1985 to 2006. It was during this time that Penny initiated a discourse within his work on the representation of the body and began to make photographs of his sculptures as independent works of art. In addition to the 11 works in the gift, the exhibition included No One — In Particular #3 (Series 1), made in 2001 and purchased by the gallery that year, and the photograph of No One — In Particular #1 (Series 1), loaned to the exhibition by Calgary artist Chris Cran. The opportunity to consider Penny’s sculptures and photographs together leads to a greater understanding of his undertaking as a whole.
Realism is “a mode of art discourse and a style in the largest sense,” as the late art historian Linda Nochlin reminded us in her essay, “The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law,” published in Art in America in 1981. Penny is usually classified as a hyperrealist because of the striking verisimilitude of his work. He accepts the term; however, Penny has never considered himself a realist, even though he sculpts from a model in the traditional method in clay, takes a mould and casts his work, which is figurative. Rather than in the figure, his interests reside in the body, in the close observation of the body, in the deconstruction of realist conventions, and in the subjectivity of perception. This leads Penny to make highly articulated descriptive surfaces and intense depictions, while at the same time it allows his viewers to accept distortion and reconcile gaps in the reality of appearances with what we know should be there.
Working in the realist mode from early on, Penny has engaged in an interrogation of realist figurative sculpture, formally and systematically questioning its conventions in order to deconstruct and contemporize them. His first question was: How can an artist make realist figurative sculpture an art of its time? His solutions have changed the terms from figure to the body and from realism to the representation of how the world appears. They began with how we stand and move and understand ourselves in the world as bodies in real space.
His first exhibited works are six standing nude figures that are closely observed, and hyper in detail and rendered in colour. The first figure is life-size, while the others are smaller than life, the quicker to differentiate them from body castings. Each figure represents a single individual with remarkable physical presences, each the equivalent of a full body portrait, true down to the shape of the nail on a little toe. Jim (1985), a bracingly contemporary male nude, four fifths life-size, is also presented as a headless, armless torso cut off below the knees. The amputations to a highly realistic polychrome figure, whose sex is intact and tumescent, are discomfiting. They shift our point of reference from the unity of the whole, a figure that we read as a person, to that of a now anonymous fragmented body that is somehow alive. The Jim Torso (1985) is a grotesque; its unmistakable reference is to a ruined classical sculpture, which opens a discourse on the history of figurative sculpture and leads it into new territory.
Soon after the single figures, Penny’s practice becomes fully discursive in The Shadow Series (1985–1986), in which he pairs one of the nudes, either a Jim or an Ali (1984), with a dark “shadow” figure. The artist doubles the number of figures in a single work in The Shadow Series, by placing a contemporary male or female nude back-to-back with a classical figure remodeled from its original and cast in bronze, a material used by the ancient Greeks. The discursive aspect of the double-figure sculptures is brought to the fore by juxtaposition and the comparisons it elicits. In these works from the Penny gift, Male Torso Shadow Grouping (1985) pairs the Jim Torso figure with its classicized revision in bronze, while Female Shadow Grouping (1986) pairs a reworked Ali (1983) with her classical bronze rendition.
The Shadow Groupings animate a confrontation of the historical past and the present, the idealized nude and the unidealized naked body, and the familiar and the other, with the past surprisingly being the more familiar. Both of the bronze “shadows” are based on archetypes: Jim on the Antikythera Ephebe, the bronze sculpture of a Greek youth dated to 340–330 B.C., and Ali on the Knidian Venus, known only through a Roman copy of the long-lost marble statue of the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles, also dated to the fourth century B.C. No iconographic models exist in antiquity for the Ephebe. The heroic youth’s outstretched hand in the original is thought by some to have once held a spherical object. If the object were an apple, as has been argued, the ancient figure could be that of Paris, of the Greek myth, reaching out to award a golden apple to either Hera, Athena or Aphrodite to signify his judgement of which is the most beautiful goddess. Paris gives the prize to Aphrodite, whom the Romans called Venus.
Through its existence as Roman copies, the Aphrodite of Cnidus established the canon for the proportions of the female nude, which has been followed for centuries. The statue is one of the first life-size representations of a female nude in Greek art, and an alternative to the heroic male nude. Like the Ephebe, her body is in the contrapposto position, in which most of her weight is supported by one leg, allowing the other to bend at the knee and tilt the hips, shoulders and head. Represented in contrapposto or counterpoise, an innovation of classical Greek art still in use, a standing figure appears both more realistic and more relaxed and capable of movement. The startling difference encountered in the Shadow Groupings lies between presentation of the classical nudes as still-life and the representation of the contemporary nudes as unidealized, unheroic, chromatic and highly detailed human beings that gives them extraordinary flesh-and-blood presence. This kind of sculpture was not being made by anyone else. This is especially true of the revision of Ali, whose glowing imperfect corporeality relates less to sculpture of the 1980s than to realistically rendered female nudes in paintings such as Titian’s Danae (1554) or Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at her Bath (1654).
At pains to separate his work from that of Hyperrealist sculptors such as Duane Hanson and John de Andrea, who cast their life-size sculptures on their models’ bodies and were reliant on narrative suggested by their gestures, poses, clothing and props to achieve full trompe l’oeil, Penny instead made his standing figures at four fifths life size. He eschewed gesture and the accessories of narrative. However, when he revised Ali for the Female Shadow Grouping, he extended her left arm in the active, determining gesture of the Ephebe, giving her agency in another contrast with the passive Venus that is her doppelganger from the past. Ali reaches out toward the viewer or perhaps toward the future, as if to say that what constitutes beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and that such notions are not absolutes but subjects of continual cultural change. In this the two sculptures in the Female Shadow Grouping suggest that the origins of the Western artistic conventions of the female nude reside in classical Greek sculpture and at the same time measure the distance between now and then in the comparison.