Ask Your Body : An Invitation

Michael Short

When I first encountered Evan Penny’s sculptures, I was struck both by how unsettling they were and yet also how very familiar. I have come to appreciate those two qualities as the fundamental conditions of his work. The unsettling aspect shows in that Penny makes sculptures of the human body and not figurative sculptures. A sculpture of the human body uses the language and vocabulary of lived, visceral experiences and a figurative sculpture is an abstracted representation of a body. Penny’s sculptures communicate how you and I, as bodies, relate to and experience our own body and those of others. They display cues that we pick up regarding proximity, scale, parallax, vertigo, and many unnamed, but known, phenomena. Our body is a large brain; we think with our bodies, not just with our minds.

The recognition of the evident technical facility with which the sculptures are made is just the starting point, the invitation of experiencing his art. As the pre-verbal part of my brain comes to believe the veracity of what I am being shown, my emotions and thoughts can then become engaged. In other words, once I believe what the sculpture is showing me formally, then I start to make further associations from the content.

That sense of familiarity I recognize in Penny’s sculptures derives not from what they are, but from how familiar they are. Encountering Penny’s works I am reminded that I have experienced this body-awareness before; through the myriad encounters I have had with people, the relationships with them in space and time. Penny uses this familiar body-awareness to unsettle you, so that you become awake to what you may have ignored, or overlooked, in yourself and others. You take a second look, and form a fresh impression. Don’t stand so close to me.

We have all had the experience of seeing a stranger somewhere and thinking for a moment that they were someone we know, which then prompts us to remember the original of this imposter and think ‘I remember so-and-so…’ or ‘what are they doing now?’ Or maybe you have seen a work of art somewhere, and you can’t remember the artist’s name or the title of the work. But what you see in that face, arm, or gesture you are now associating with a memory of someone (or another, unrelated artwork) and there is a shock, a moment of being awake. A moment. Then it is forgotten until you have another unsettling encounter, and then your body asks you a question. Is it real?

The body, of course, is a familiar theme within the history and iconography of the church. Crucifixes, paintings, icons, devotional and memorial sculptures and reliefs have all depicted bodies as symbols and representations of the workings of God, Jesus Christ and others. This presentation of the body has been a supporting metaphor within the community, practice and history of belief of the church’s long history. Penny’s sculptures in Chiesa di San Samuele offer a contribution to this history in their own, reliably unnerving manner.

The exhibition in Chiesa di San Samuele has its origins in Penny’s new work, the first being Homage to Holbein, an elongated sculptural version of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dead Christ in His Tomb, (1520-22). Penny has stretched the image of Christ to over 4 meters in length, drawing out the features of the body, and with it, Christ’s agonized expression. The stretching is reminiscent of the anamorphic projection of a skull smeared across the front of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, (1533)—a technique that Penny has used previously with his portrait works. The severity of the stretch gives the idea that one’s vision has slowed down—one can take in more information because of the extended length.

I started to notice an unintended Venetian theme after Penny made Marsyas. This work was inspired by a marble statue of Marsyas, a Roman copy of a 3rd century BC original from from Tarsus, Turkey now located in the collection of the Archeological Museum of Istanbul. Penny’s Marsyas, appearing to mimic a crucified Christ, is stretched, although not as radically as Homage to Holbein, the form taking on a flame-like taper as if ascending or, as his face suggests, descending. In planning this exhibition, I came across the story of Marcoantonio Bragadin, who, as the Venetian Captain of the Kingdom of Cyprus, in Famagusta, in 1571, was flayed alive, and his body quartered by the Ottomans. His skin was preserved and was later brought back to Venice where it is interred in Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo. The story of Bragadin’s torture and demise was apparently Titian’s inspiration for The Punishment of Marsyas, (1570-76), which—unbeknownst to Penny—was painted in Titian’s studio near Chiesa di San Samuele.

Hanging Torso and Self Portrait after Géricault’s Fragments Anatomiques are both works which are fragments of human bodies that we see as complete, whole sculptures. We have become accustomed to seeing such fragments displayed in museums and col-lections, excavated from historical sites and presented as whole in their own right. Hanging Torso is a copy of a 1st-2nd century AD Roman rosso antico marble torso fragment of a centaur in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Penny has re-created the torso in an oversized scale, rendering the powerful muscular form as an imposing presence which hangs upside-down (in a way similar to Titian’s painted Marsyas), suspended, seemingly floating as light as air.

For Self Portrait after Géricault’s Fragments Anatomiques, a sculptural homage to Théodore Géricault’s studies of body parts made as preparations for Le Radeau de la Méduse, (1818-19), Penny cast his own arm and legs. The sculpture, two times larger than life, and resting on what looks like an ancient marble reliquary slab, the hand and feet beckoning the viewer to take a closer look. But the recognition of the blunt truncation of the limbs brings with it the awareness that these appendages were once part of a larger whole—a body. From the absence of the other parts (the arms, legs and a head for Hanging Torso, an arm and the rest of the body for Self Portrait…) we are left to wonder what these whole bodies would have been like, as we re-assemble it in our imagination.

The two eras of a life, youth and old age, can be continuously subject to speculation, mythologizing, and self-deception. They are represented in this exhibition with Young Self and Old Self, 2011. Created by Penny as a re-imagining of how he had looked as a young man (‘What was I thinking…?) and how he might appear as an old man (“Can you imagine getting old…?”) they present something of a paradox; from our vantage point in the present, is it possible to ever really know who we were in our past or who we will be in our future? And who are we now in relation to these two points? As our past and future selves are continuously created from a fictional re-imagining, so too can our perception of our current self be a fiction, informed by those two other fictions from out on the boundaries of time.

You may have seen some things like these before, but not really. There are things in the world and things in art, and, even if they appear to be the same, they’re not. And that is the difference in Penny’s work that makes a difference. For if we take what something appears to be, add to it what we think it is pretending to be, combine that with what it ‘really’ is, the result is what makes possible both a work of art and the realm of the sacred. If we didn’t ask the question “What if…?” we wouldn’t try to create other worlds, nor have belief, nor the capacity for empathy. Our willingness to question can sometimes rival our tolerance to look for the answers. As David Tudor said, “If you don’t know, why do you ask?”