Big, Naked, and Freaky

It hardly needs to be said that if you are in or near Toronto, you should go see the Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera exhibit currently on at the AGO. It’s a great exhibit that features paintings by both, together with their shared personal and political history and photographs by their contemporaries and friends. But once you are at the AGO, you must also take time to see the Evan Penny exhibit.

Penny is a Canadian sculptor who trained in classical realist sculpture and then spent years working in prosthetics and special effects in film. For the last ten years he has combined his sculptor’s vision with the materials of special effects, using silicone, resins, and hair to explore large-scale depictions of the human form. Penny’s sculptures are at once startling, creepy, and compelling. The techniques and materials he uses create intensely life-like forms. At any moment you expect these giant heads and distorted faces to turn or speak or blink. You do not trust your eyes around Penny’s works because the sculptures are meant to challenge your perception.

In L Faux CMYK, for example, Penny has created a 3D rendering of a 2D image with its print colours off-register. Your eyes report this three-dimensional info to the brain, but the brain argues that the information received is in the “language” of two dimensions, and is unsure what to make of the object being perceived.

In Aerial #2, a male nude stares at the viewer in forced perspective. (Aerial #2, depicted on the left-hand photo above, is in the show. Aerial #1 , which Penny is seen working on in the right-hand photo above, is not in the AGO show.) The actual sculpture is enormous, but squashed. We seem to be looking at the man from above, and yet he looms at us from his wall-mount. This would hardly be interesting in a two-dimensional form, because we are used to seeing forced perspectives in 2D to give us clues to 3D realities. But in 3D, it’s harder to comprehend. Are we looking down? Where is he in relation to us? How is his gaze so openly confrontational? Why is this art gazing back at us? How is he below us if he is on a pedestal?

In an interview with Emese Krunák-Hajagos, Penny says: “I challenge myself with the question: “What will happen if I take a distortion that we assume belongs exclusively to the 2 dimensional realm and bring it over to the 3 dimensional; into the space we physically occupy?””

What happens is a confrontation in the viewer’s brain. Perceptions of life/death, old/young, real/fake, 2D/3D are shaken up. Things we take for granted about digital depictions of the human form are turned on their head. Clues that represent time in the two-dimensional world become freakish distortions in three dimensions, despite 3D being our reality. We find ourselves asking what “real” means in an image when so much can be digitally manipulated, and with Penny’s work, the meaning of “realistic” to describe sculpture must be re-evaluated.

Not all art stirs the emotions. An intellectual stretch can be just as profound an experience. Because Penny’s sculptures are such an intense visual experience, photographs of his work “flatten” them and do not do them justice. This is an exhibit that must be seen to be believed. “Evan Penny: Re-Figured” is at the AGO till January 6th, 2013, and it is the only Canadian stop on this tour. Squeeze in some time during this holiday season and go.

Photo credits for above images here.

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