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A Conversation with Evan Penny

Gallery view of the Crystal Bridges at 10 exhibition

Now on view in the museum’s temporary exhibition Crystal Bridges at 10, are two crowd favorites by artist Evan Penny: Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be. Variation #2 and Young Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Was (Not), Variation #2. These sculptures have struck awe in countless visitors who peer into the sculptures’ eyes, believing at any second, they will blink, coming to life. These works are part of a series that project these questions of reality, perception, and identity not only forward into the artist’s imagined future, but also backward into his past. Penny is fascinated with our modern understanding of photography, not only as a means of capturing the “real,” but as a primary medium for envisioning and defining ourselves.

Penny is a South African-born artist living in Canada. He is well-known for his hyperrealistic sculptures that comment on the relationship between modern photography and personal perception. His work portfolio includes abstract “skin drawings” that examine the surface of his own flesh in topographical detail, as well as monumental-scaled realistic three-dimensional “anamorphs” featuring the kind of distortions more common to the two-dimensional world of Photoshop manipulation. He also worked in the film industry for 13 years, creating sculptural illusions for films and television shows including JFK, Natural Born Killers, Face Off, and X-Men.

Below, enjoy an interview with Penny from 2013 for the museum’s membership publication, then come see the works for yourself in Crystal Bridges at 10.

Evan Penny, Young Self, Variation #3 (with artist), 2011. Silicone, pigment, hair, fabric, aluminum, 86 x 76 x 59 cm. Art and image © Evan Penny.
Evan Penny, Young Self, Variation #3 (with artist), 2011. Silicone, pigment, hair, fabric, aluminum, 86 x 76 x 59 cm. Art and image © Evan Penny.

Crystal Bridges: What do you come away with when you create self-portraits like the Old Self and Young Self portraits? You said once you felt “older” after having done Old Self.  

Evan Penny: I will admit that’s the one piece that really did kind of impact me emotionally. I can usually maintain more distance, but that one really was a bit of a journey. I do think, again, it’s this relationship to the photograph. When you’re looking directly, you’re just concerned with how one looks, whereas this was more “how do we imagine ourselves,” and starting from a scan, not from scratch, was important because the exploration, for me, had to do with recognizing that the way we imagine (ourselves) is based on the technologies we’ve got available to us to make these representations. And you realize this is very bound up in photography and how photography then captures that. I have images of myself when I’m young, but does that really represent what I looked like? It represents how that camera captured that likeness at that moment, but it’s just such a fleeting thing that you can have multiple images of yourself and they all look different.  So there’s nothing reliable about any of that information, but yet we rely very heavily on it, and we build these strong impressions of ourselves based on it. It was important that I start from a scan or from a photographic image to recognize that I’m starting from where I look like now in both cases. I’m trying to maintain the feeling and the look of myself in my mid-to-late 50s, imagining myself old and imagining myself young. So both of those are representations of how I look now at the same time. In the end, it all represents how I look right now, who I am now. When we think about who we were or who we’re going to be it’s just us now thinking about that. To me, that’s what this project is about.

CB: Your earlier works were directly hand-rendered from scratch. With more recent works, including Old Self, you’ve been starting from a clay base cast from a three-dimensional scanned image. Can you explain your reasons for making this change?

EP: This had to do with the observational process, in which you have a model posing for you and you’re observing them directly for X number of hours. And the conundrum was:  why was it that the longer I worked and the more accurate the sculpture became, the less it felt like the subject. It didn’t necessarily bring me closer to the feel. It brought me closer to the look of her or him. I started to realize that one of the reasons for that is that… those sculptures evolved through the course of, say 400 hours. And what they were was really a representation of what someone looks like in 400 hours, not after 400 hours, and that’s why I think it didn’t feel like them, it was a kind of unfamiliar space.  A photograph, it’s a slice of time. It’s just an instant. And then also the way we encounter each other, say, in a conversational kind of space, it’s animated, we’re in the moment. But a representation that is built over this really long period of time, it tends to select for the neutral. So that was the conundrum I was in. The scanned pieces are three-dimensional scans. We will mill a 3D foam copy and then I will make a mold of the foam copy and cast it back into clay. So now I’m starting from a three-dimensional object that basically is a semi-instantaneous capture. Somewhere in there that photographic image is embedded into that piece of clay. And as I rethink it and evolve it into an old version of myself or a young version of myself…or do something else with it, the challenge is not to override that expression that was there from the photographic capture. And that is a real challenge. The easiest thing to do as it evolves, especially the longer you work on it, would be to lose that sense of the moment. That’s the precise feature I can’t generate necessarily in this long observational process.

Guests look at oversized sculpture bust of older man on view in Crystal Bridges at 10
Evan Penny, Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be. Variation #2, 2010, silicone, pigment, hair, fabric, and aluminum, 33 7/8 x 29 7/8 x 23 1/4 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2011.11. Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.
Evan Penny, Old Self, Variation #1 (with artist), 2010. Silicone, pigment, hair, fabric, aluminum. 86 x 76 x 59 cm. Art and image © Evan Penny.
Evan Penny, Old Self, Variation #1 (with artist), 2010. Silicone, pigment, hair, fabric, aluminum. 86 x 76 x 59 cm. Art and image © Evan Penny.

CB: What kind of factors did you take into account when you were deciding how your “Old Self” would look? 

EP: One of the things I used to do in the film industry was old-age makeup effects. You basically build a veneer of clay over the top of the actor’s cast face. You’ve got to respect what the actor’s got. Whatever creases are there, whatever structures are there, you have to work with them. So you’re basically amplifying them. The creases that are there are the ones that are going to become stronger. So you ask them to grimace or do whatever so you can see where those structures separate and move and then you build on that. So when I’m doing it to myself in this kind of context, it’s not that different, except I can carve down deeper into the object, I don’t have to respect the original surface.

CB: You said in one interview that once you started using hair in your sculptures, the public related to the works in ways you didn’t expect.  What was it about hair that caused the reaction?

EP: With the work prior to that, there was a kind of formal distance: the color was more neutral, it didn’t have real hair, those sorts of things, which gave you a little bit more conceptual distance. I think as soon as you add hair, it became more viscerally real, and that was shocking. I think we’re more used to that now, we’re surrounded by those sorts of images now, but I think back then it was maybe less precedented.

CB: Did it make you question yourself?

EP: Very much. I guess I wasn’t ready for that kind of…maybe it was too personal, but it was that loss of distance, the fact that this became almost voodoo-like, it took on a whole other level of charge.  It was the first time I really understood or started to appreciate that you don’t just read something conceptually, you read it with your body and you react directly physically to it.


Both works are now on view in Crystal Bridges at 10, now through September 27. Get tickets here.