A towering nude man greets every visitor to Sperone Westwater gallery on the Lower East Side. This ten foot tall figure, also known as “Jim Revisited” (2011), looks so realistic that it stops nearly everyone dead in their tracks upon entering the gallery. The people-watching is great as viewers trade surprised glances and funny comments, all while staring wide open with disbelieving eyes. This is the type of art that boggles the mind; it provokes the question of how the hell the artist pulled it off. Rattling off the list of banal materials — silicone, pigment, hair, aluminum and fabric — does little to capture the convincing illusion that artist Evan Penny conjures up, but it does testify to his deft artistic mind that achieves much more than most with these materials.
Penny does not shy away from blemishes and freckles on his life-like sculptures. The artist’s bodies look neither perfectly airbrushed nor grossly disfigured; they are simply human. What also makes these works impressive is the careful incorporation of physical quirks, which lends even more credence to their hyper-realistic appearance. Jim’s balls hang sort of awkwardly and not in the idealized way of most sculpted scrota. Freckles cover his back and hair sprouts up in unusual places. His knee caps blush with a rouged hue and seem worn by activity. The work bristles with the same bizarre details one inadvertently notices in a gym locker room.
Up until this point, this review’s praise for Penny’s realism has veered dangerously close to characterizing him as the answer to the prayers of Madame Tussaud’s brand manager. But tourist kitsch is not Penny’s fate. Penny has a twist on hyper-realism that blasts his work light years away from the dull and literal mimesis of wax figures.
The sculptures are warped at bizarre angles that don’t look totally “correct” or “in focus” from any specific vantage point. It’s hard to imagine a sculpture skewed in three dimensions, but the effect is mesmerizing. The closest analogy is perhaps the capability of Photoshop to distort an image like a fun house mirror, bending and stretching human features. But Penny manages to pull off this twist in three dimensions with a level of precision that seems more digital than human. In one example, Jim tilts and is subtly distorted toward the right, forcing his entire pose to resemble the figural equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The most extreme example of warping sits inside the gallery’s elevator on the second floor. “Female Stretch, Variation #2” (2011) depicts a women’s face in a hyper-realist idiom, except for the fact that her face is scrunched and compressed into a cartoonishly narrow profile. It’s fascinating how Penny managed to maintain the integrity of his realist style despite this aggressive distortion.
A few other works in the show take misrepresentation in a different direction. They are self-portraits of the artist as how he did not look when he was younger and how he will not look when he gets older. It’s a clever concept. But the works, in my view, do not pull with the same gravity as the pieces that are strangely shaped and stretched.
Anamorphosis is a word that seldom gets its day in the sun. Besides Hans Holbein’s famous painting “The Ambassadors” (1553) at the National Gallery in London, there is little opportunity to enjoy or discuss the thrill of compromising an otherwise highly realistic style with subtle or blatant visual distortions. Like Holbein, albeit in a different way and medium, Penny’s warped sculpture explore that rich tension between real and unreal, familiar and unfamiliar, natural and unnatural. It is this that renders them uncanny to the eye. As the artist makes choices for his next body of work, it would be sublime to see him push this tendency further.
Evan Penny is on view at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery) through Saturday, March 26, 2011.