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Evan Penny: Larger Than Life

TORONTO Meet Jim Revisited (2011): the Toronto-based sculptor Evan Penny’s own David—or, perhaps more aptly, his Goliath. The three-metre-tall piece presided over Penny’s work at Germany’s Kunsthalle Tübingen last summer, in a spectacular survey of the prolific last ten years of his career. (The survey, “EVAN PENNY: RE FIGURED,” opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario this fall.) Penny sees Jim Revisited as a literal summit. “It is by far the largest piece in the survey,” he says, “and the largest piece I’m ever likely to make.”

The issues prompted by Jim Revisited echo those that have followed Penny since his earliest works in the late 1970s and 1980s. The penetrating gaze of the sculpture—and the remarkable resemblance of this and all of the artist’s platinum-cured-silicone work to real, animate flesh—belies its equally intricate, and arguably much more meaningful, interrogations into perspective. Jim Revisited is in fact a revisiting of Penny’s 1985 work Jim. That initial sculpture was made during what Penny sees as the first major phase of his career, when he constructed smaller-than-life-sized figures whose proportions were accurate, but whose startlingly specific details suggested something beyond realism—a kind of topography of the hyper-gaze.

Penny’s ability to furnish the uncanny caught the attention of the film industry, for which he worked on prosthetic-makeup effects for more than a decade. (His credits include many Oliver Stone films, JFK and Nixon among them.) It was during this period, he notes, that he entered the second phase of his artistic career: despite his day job’s verisimilitudinous demands, his studio work became more abstract. He returned to figuration in the 1990s; this newest, very contemporary phase—iterated by Jim Revisited’s destabilizing skewing to the left—is marked by an engagement with photography, anamorphism and the associated effects of digital technology on our perception of objects and their dimensionality.

In order to realize Jim Revisited, the original Jim was scanned, skewed, scaled by computer technology and reworked by hand in clay. “With the digital, how we imagine ourselves in time has changed again,” says Penny. “We’re starting to comprehend ourselves quite differently, and I’m not sure we fully understand how that is affecting us.” He relates that the life model for Jim Revisited, a friend, has passed on: the work, then, is a departure as well as a return. “I’m going through a period of reassessment in my work, which I haven’t felt the need to do for the past ten years,” he says, with a slightly rueful grin. “Something is definitely shifting.”

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