10/15/2012 05:41 EDT | Updated 12/15/2012 05:12 EST

Evan Penny: Re Figured Sculptures at the AGO

Picasso Estate SODRAC (2012)


Maybe, says Canadian artist but that was a long time AGO

It was the '60s: Vietnam, nuclear testing in the Pacific, Sgt Pepper, and, the Who singing they hoped their generation would die before it got old.

What could be worse than aging? Cutting your hair? Buying a suit? Cubicles? Getting a mortgage?

The song didn't work. Most of us lived. We all grew old. Overnight. No one thought about what was going to happen as the aging process took hold... except maybe Canadian sculptor, Evan Penny.

When Pete Townshend wrote My Generation (with that famous dying line) it was 1965 and the Who were pointing out that older people just "don't get it."

Evan Penny was 12 years old and had just moved to Canada from Africa where his father had practised medicine. He was an outsider on the edge of the Boomer Bubble. He was about to grow old, but, on his own terms. An artist. A prop builder for Hollywood movies. A man who literally "stretched" how Canadians think about sculpture.

In 2006, four decades past the Who's best due date, the Toronto-based artist decided he could use sculpture to figuratively return to the days of his youth, and at the same time flash forward towards a time of his own perceived physical decay.

"How I might feel at the end of my life. What will I look like?" said Evan Penny while standing beside a life-sized bust of himself as he imagined he will look at the age of 90. The wall-mounted artwork is a key piece in an important exhibition that recently opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto.

"This is how might I feel at the end of my life," Penny told me at a press preview for the show. "This second piece (moving over to a sculpture of himself as a 17-year-old) is how I probably felt at the beginning (of manhood) but it is really about me in the here-and-now."

The AGO is the last stop for Evan Penny: Re Figured, following exhibitions at Germany's Kunsthalle Tübingen, the Museum der Moderne Salzburg in Austria, and Italy's Museo delle Arti Cantanzaro. The exhibition is in Toronto until January 6, 2013.

Evan Penny: Re Figured is a solo exhibition that features over 25 of Penny's larger-than-life sculptures, each painstakingly crafted from layers of pigmented silicone, human hair, fabric and resin. Blending abstraction and figuration, Penny's hyper-realistic sculptures straddle the line between object and image, presenting the human form both as it is and as it can be when imagined through the distorting lens of photography and digital media.

Filling the fourth floor, this show, according to the gallery "shows the artist's evolution over the past decade, highlighting in equal measure his technical skill and fresh thinking. Accessible, often familiar and sometime vaguely monstrous, his works engage audiences, young and old alike, on various levels."

"No, I didn't make a mould of myself," said Penny, while fielding questions at a bare-bones media preview held in mid-September at the AGO." However, I did scan myself. From that I made a foam sculpture and a follow-on clay sculpture casting and onto the next step... (a silicon casting, followed by the final addition of hair, pigment and a super realistic paint job!)."

"After all that, there is still the look of myself in there, in the sense of the present and the future."

The sculptor's ability to give his work startlingly lifelike skin colour, comes from his other life, that of a special effects expert for the movies. You might have seen the head he created of John Kennedy, which was used in Oliver Stone's film JFK, or the organic guns and computer pods in David Croneberg's eXistenZ and that thing in the rat-infested cellar in Graveyard Shift.

There is a touch of strange in his current exhibition. "Stretch #1," is a huge three metre tall silicone face, and for almost a decade hung in Toronto at the AGO.

Evan Penny's "Stretch #1" from 2003 is one of the "most popular works at the Art Gallery of Ontario," said Matthew Teitelbaum, the director and CEO of the gallery. Visitors love to stare at Stretch's huge stretched silicone face and peer into his big watery eyes. "When it came down (to be part of the touring show), we were constantly being asked by visitors where it was!"

In this age of Photoshop, Penny is not surprised that young art gallery goers relate to the three-dimensional distortion of a man's face in Stretch #1.

"We are saturated with images because of the media. My work displays this world in 3-D, to what is often a 2-D audience," he said. "In a 2-D world we accept distortion quickly. Not so in the 3-D world. I am interested in that juxtaposition."

He suggests that if you were to put a photograph of "Stretch #1" and some of his other works from the show, into a Photoshop program, one could restore the image back to almost picture-perfect normalcy.

And there are other works in the show, that are so lifelike, photographs of his pieces, like the bird's eye view of a standing nude male ("Aerial #2"), need no computer diddling to make them look more real than a sculpture.

What is it all about? According to the artist, that is a fair question, one that he asks himself from time-to-time. He admits there is a fair bit of voyeurism in some of his work. Maybe, as the Who once sang, it is a case of not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation, he's just talkin' 'bout his g-g-g-generation.