Evan Penny’s Uncertainty Principle

This essay is from the Absolutely Unreal catalogue, 2004

By David Clark

Evan Penny’s new work presents a shift in the artist’s project from one that insists on the human dimensions of space and experience to a radically new vision of figuration and sculptural practice set against the backdrop of digital photography. Penny’s earlier figurative work presented sculptural realism in parallel to the movements of “realism” and “photorealism” of the late twentieth century but now he has waded into the uncertainty of the image in the wake of digital photography and in doing so he has become a new kind of photorealist. He has taken his work outside the canonizing traditions of figurative sculpture and thrown in his lot with a radical rethinking of visual culture that is trying to understand a world without reality.

Realism in the age of simulation is a convoluted project. What is realism when the real is unfixed? What Penny’s new work presents us with is not a positivist proposition of reality but the real as a double negative; a real as that which is not unreal; plausible deniability fixed to the fluctuating denomination of photographic realism. As Penny renegotiates his relationship to realism, we are drawn into a world not clearly delineated by comfortable humanistic perspectives but confronted with a shifting world of uncertain codes, multiple perspectives and unfixed identities.

L. Faux: Colour
2000
123 x 153 x 26 cm
epoxy resin, pigment, hair

Penny’s earlier work addressed the human figure head on; insisting on the human body; asserting man as “the measure of all things”. It spoke to the existential confrontation we must have with of ourselves as objects. The project followed through a classical almost scientific trajectory of examination and insistence of the body. Ironically; however, this insistence didn’t assure us or answer our questions about our embodiment. It created an uncanny and surreal effect, just as staring at yourself in a mirror tends to unravel an elaborate construct of your own self-identity leaving you scrambling to find solid ground to place yourself. Sculptures like Ali (1983) and Murray (1998), placed a body succinctly and clearly into our consideration as if a person were really there willing you to gaze upon them. The resulting intimacy provoked an uneasy presence for the viewer. This encounter was layered with the echoes of the history of figuration – a history rich with symbolic meanings. The ambiguity of this symbolic dimension of figuration and the naked realization of a seemingly real person was one of the primary tensions in the work and the subject of a number of works that came after such as Male Shadow Grouping (1985) and Female Shadow Grouping (1985). This work created a new tension between the project of portraiture set against the universalizing effects of figuration in general.

What was consistently pursued in Penny’s early works was the observational. We know that a real person posed for the artist; was seen by the artist, and was rendered with meticulous care by the artist. It was a realism that seemed to proceed from common sense. This is the trust that we gave over to the artist. He was our witness. He was our camera. The viewer could marvel at the skill required to render these figures; the detail; the precision. But the effect also led us to contemplate that precision and detail had left the field of modernist art to be replaced by signs of expression and truth to materials. The work of precision and detail had been given over to a set of standard industrial processes involved in chemical photography. The camera had become the witness just as a science of repeatable proofs has overcome the incongruence of experience. Human perception was hardly a thing for artists to explore since machines seemed to provide is with more resolution and precision that we could possibly ever achieve or even need. Penny’s work proceeded to challenge the limits of human observation and skill not for the macho man vs. machine spectacle of photorealism but to demark that the sculptural hadn’t been overtaken by industrialization and that space really was the final frontier. There was no equivalent technology of resolution that has established itself in the third dimension the way photography has commanded the plane.

Lurking in that work; however, was the impossibility of realism indeed the impossibility of the real? Realism was always overburdened with an impossible task. Jacques Lacan talks of the real not as the shared consensus of worldly perception but as that which cannot be symbolized. Realism suffered because it was a symbolizing practice. It gave us a code in which to refer to the world; a world we had all agreed was real. This work revealed that realism is a tautology. Our real, our personal experience lay outside a set of symbols. Penny’s work spoke to that real, that part of our experience that we had never given up to the world but held within our self; that “hard kernel of the real” that Lacan speaks about.

The more carefully rendered and realized the figures were the stranger and more obscure they became. The strangeness is in the term “photorealism” that became attached to this type of work. In the last century we have given over to the mechanical process of the photograph the authority of the truth of the image. Photorealism, in painting and sculpture, ironically measured these mediums up against the “photographic effect” perhaps as a way of disrupting the hegemony of the photograph perhaps as a challenge to keep up with the real (or I should say the symbolic). But there is a difference between realism and photorealism. Penny’s early work insisted on the viewer being aware of the process by which these figures were carefully sculpted but also creating the magical quality of appearing congruent with reality the way that photography does. 1 We know from their scale that they could not have been cast. The casting process resembles in some ways the photographic process in that it lets the mechanical/chemical process of the materials determine the form of the artifact what Roland Barthes describes in Camera Lucida as the continuity of touch that is communicated in the photograph. Barthes argues that in contemplating the photography there is a direct connection with the light that has been reflected from the subject and that is being reflected back to us in the same way. “(I)n photography, I can never deny that the thing was there. Past and reality are superimposed… The photo is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body which was there proceed radiations that come to touch me, I who am here.” But by shifting the scale down, Penny creates an object that could only be made through minute and careful human processing but also asserts the literal emanation of the body. It is a project that insists on the connection between perception and realization through human labour and experience.

Murray: Colour
1998
4/5 lifesize
142 cm
resin, pigment, hair

Ali
1984
4/5 lifesize
133 cm
resin, pigment, hair

Male Shadow Grouping
1985
4/5 lifesize
140 cm
resin, pigment, bronze

This insistence on the human process is still at work in the anamorphs, the No One – In Particular series, the L. Faux series but what is presented for us to consider is a new set of circumstances of the image. Penny’s work has made a move from realism to photorealism but not as a way to engage photorealism set against the authoritarian monolith of the photograph of the 1970’s but set against the territory disrupted by the practices of “digital photography”. The digital tools, and more importantly the cultural practices surrounding them, have ripped the tablecloth from under the table setting of photographic realism to discover that the plates, glasses and cutlery don’t rest on a table; the table never existed. David Hockney, amongst many others, has articulated this idea:

It’s the end of chemical photography. We had this belief in photography, but it’s about to disappear because of the computer. It can re-create something that looks like the photographs we’ve known. But it’s unreal. What’s that going to do to all photographs? 2

The new work no longer speaks directly to our experience of the figure, to real bodies that we have seen and examined. It no longer presents the figures in a charged asexual scientific context. The work is now addressed to the camera, to the photograph and to a world we see through the codes of photographic realism. This is a new type of contemplation, not a directly existential contemplation of our selves as bodies in time and space but as body images caught within a vast network of codes of representation.

No One – In Particular #11
2003
63 x 55 x 13cm
silicone, pigment, hair, fabric

The L. Faux series incorporates characteristics of the optical photograph not usually ascribed to realism; the double exposure, depth of field, blurring, achromaticism – what might be seen as photographic mistakes. The incorporation of these “mistakes” or characteristics into a vocabulary of sculptural realism indicates that we are not to read these sculptural objects purely through formalist sculptural principles. The work replays the ironic gesture of photorealist painting; that of asserting and highlighting the realistic effects as the gauge of reality itself. The ironic gesture is carried on one step further; however, as we try to imagine a technology that created these effects; a technology that doesn’t exist. What this work asserts is how the project of realism has become entangled with the trajectory of photography. This work, like Virilio’s Museum of the Technological Accident, is a monument to the technological other. It reflects on the way in which a technology creates it’s own vocabulary and it’s own reality through effects that are not intentional.

The No One – In Particular series undermines the factual ground of the photographic portrait. The work presents us with a believable image of a person who doesn’t exist. We struggle to ask the question: if this is a photograph of someone how can we believe that they don’t exist? How far has our belief in photography taken us into the realm of the imaginary? I find myself asking; surely these people might come forward to claim their identity. Surely there must be people who look like this; they just haven’t found these images yet. These images are orphans searching the world for their owners. After all there has to be a limit to the number of human beings there are, and these are human beings in these images and therefore they must exist somewhere. But I also ask, don’t these fictional people exist as much for me as Ali or Janet or Jim. This work makes me think of the elaborate institutions of witnessing that have invested in the photographic image. Passport photographs and photo IDs are the instrumental extension of the history of portraiture. The No One – In Particular series disrupts this indexical project. It also provokes us to contemplate how pervasive this index is not just to the surveillance system but also to our own sense of community and attachment. Here I think of the example of the snapshots given to the cyborgs in Blade Runner that stand in for a past that never existed. The point being that the value of the photograph is not through the referent but our investment in the value of the real.

L. Faux: Tri-X
2001
123 x 153 x 26 cm
polyester resin,
pigment, hair

L. Faux: Black & White
2000
123 x 153 x 26 cm
epoxy resin, pigment, hair

The anamorphs addresses itself to the cyclops eye of the camera that reconstitutes the complete image based on a particular aspect of viewing it. We look at these images imagining ourselves as machine that can see the image not as an organic whole but through a set of filtered perceptions and fixed perspectives. William Mitchell observes in “The Reconfigured Eye” that the camera is “an ideal Cartesian instrument – a device for use by observing subjects to record supremely accurate traces of the objects before them.” As such it is also embedded and tied to the advance of industrial capitalism throughout the last 150 years. The camera’s eye, much like the objectifying scientific gaze, creates a neutral and impersonal posture towards the human as one of a number of objects in the world. And so easily is that image married to the commodity. The anamorphic acknowledges this procedure and draws our attention to it. Think of how the invention of linear perspective created the possibility of the anamorphic distortions in Dutch painting. The same types of critical engagement informs Penny’s take on anamorphism. It shows us realism that both convince us of a reality and while also revealing the conceits of the techniques of perspective. By forcing the viewer into particular perspectives or even as is the case of Stretch #1 (2003) and Stretch #2 (2003) into imagining perspectives that can only be created through a tool like Photoshop, the piece enacts the convoluted physicality of realism in the machine age.

In discussing Penny’s later work I don’t wish to separate it out from his whole oeuvre. In fact I think this work is best considered in relation to a steady progression of ideas about the figure. The new work that turns to consider the foundations of realism can only emerge out of the assertion of realism that was so pronounced and articulate in the early work. The shift is perhaps comparable to the way worldviews once established are reconfigured radically such as Hiesenberg’s Uncertainity Principle that stood as a rebuke to the rationalist atomic theory of the time. From reality television to virtual reality these days realism is infused with uncertainity. It should not be a great surprise to us, as Penny’s work insists, that in this era that the project of realism is one that we will increasingly find strange and uncanny.

David Clark, 2004

Stretch #1
2003
280 x 54 x 17 cm
silicone, pigment, hair, fabric

Notes:

  1. One can also recall the term “magic realism” that was used to describe realist work of the 1970’s. The magic this term referred to is an echo of the magical process of photographs ability to capture an image through optical and chemical processes that so carefully matched our own bodily perception of the world.
  2. William Leith, At home with Mr Hockney Independent on Sunday, 21 October, 1990, p. 37.