A Q & A with Toronto sculptor Evan Penny about Re figured, his first solo exhibition at the AGO

Have you ever been lurking around the Drake Hotel, and spotted a suspended, hyper-realistic back torso? Then you’ve experienced Evan Penny. The Toronto sculptor captures his subjects, and sometimes himself, in striking ways that challenge our concept of dimension.

Re figured is Penny’s first solo exhibition at the AGO, and features an impressive collection of work. The many standouts include the famous Stretch, a sculpture of a male face that is distorted to mind-bending proportions, and two sculptures that are imagined renderings of Penny as a young and old man.

Penny will also be hosting the inaugural First Thursdays at the AGO, on October 4th. This new monthly gathering will open up the galleries on Thursday nights with drinks, music and spectacle. Bahamas will perform at the first installment, and we can’t wait! [www.ago.net/1stThursdays]

At the media preview, we spoke with him about his process and the retrospective.

SDTC: Is there a moment during creation when the sculptures come alive for you?

Evan Penny: There’s a point where they become plausible. It’s also often a point where they are evolving into something a little different than I thought they would be, so now I’m following. There’s an initial set up where I have an idea of what I want to do, and then invariably they’ll start doing their own thing. At that point they become interesting. But they don’t really come together until the very end. That’s the nature of illusion, that it takes everything being in place. If there’s just even one thing out of place, that’s where your eye goes, and that’s what tells you it’s not real. The real transformative moment is right near the end, when the final touch up happens. 

SDTC: Is it a coincidence that when you started working with digital scanning, you started doing more self-portraits?

EP: Not a coincidence. The problem is, working three dimensionally, you can’t see yourself in a complex way. With a two dimensional context you sort of can. You have a mirror, although it’s backwards, or you have photography, it’s frontal, it’s only one view. So there’s ways to put that information together, but in a three dimensional context, to build a structure that is kind of complex, that works from every angle, basically, you can’t do that of yourself. The scanning process has opened that up.

SDTC: How do models react when they see themselves rendered this way? 

EP: They don’t react probably as one might assume, because a viewer is coming at them fresh, and so it’s a big experience, it’s quite an encounter. But with the model, generally speaking, I’ve been working with them already for sometimes even hundreds of hours, so they are very familiar with the process. That connection to the work is really built in at that point. So it’s usually not surprising. 

SDTC: What’s the best part, for you, of the process of creating and displaying the work? 

EP: Well, I’m a sculptor, and so working in clay is really the heart and soul of the activity. Everything else is an elaboration, in a way, from that. It’s what I bring to that and what I take from that. So the real core process is sculpting.

Evan Penny: Re figured opens Sept. 20th and runs until Jan. 6th, 2013 on the fourth floor of the Vivian and David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

~ Haley Cullingham

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