“Warm winds blowin’
Heat ‘n’ blue sky
And a road that goes
I’m goin’ to Texas.”*
Here, in the Big Apple, where there is ALWAYS too much Art for any one person to see, Rod Penner hasn’t been part of that problem. That’s because his work is almost never seen, or offered for sale, here. As a result, I only discovered him a year ago at the George Adams Gallery when I saw a tiny little painting that was smaller than a paperback book of a large hotel sign. Right away I was enthralled by it. I enquired. But? It was not for sale. Once I saw it? I had to know more. It turned out that this little work is the veritable tip of a sizable iceberg of equally excellent paintings he’s done going back to 1992 (as can be seen here.) Rod Penner became mythic to me. I waited like the Titanic adrift on the Gallery seas of Manhattan to run into more of his ‘berg.
Tonite, a year later, under clear skies, completely by chance, I accidentally crashed into it. I happened to walk in to Ameringer McEnery Yohe in Chelsea just as a solo show of his work, “Rod Penner,” was opening, without knowing it was there. Women & children, first! Too late. 8 of the 9 works on view had been sold before the opening bell.
The only one available was a work he had just finished and had to overnight to the gallery so it could be framed in time for the opening. No doubt it’s been sold, too, by now. Ok, let me get this straight- Here’s an Artist, who lives and works in Marble Falls, Texas (pop. 7,154 in 2016), that very few seem to have even heard of. There were no books about him until the gallery released one today for this show. There’s very little about him online. His work is so rarely shown, that his last NYC solo show was in 2013! Still? His new work is virtually pre-sold. What’s going on?
Looking for insight, I stood watching visitors to the opening come in and listened to their reactions. Most responded like I did, with astonishment, and only a few seemed to know his work previously. Two or three asked out loud about the prices and availability of the paintings, something I just don’t see happening at shows (where business is generally conducted quietly), even though there was a printed price list at the desk. Hmmm…
Full of desolation, empty streets, crumbling, or abandoned buildings, or oddly decorated houses, all under grey skies and fronted by cracking pavement, these latest works all depict scenes the Artist observed in San Saba, Texas (the erst-while “Pecan Capital of the World,” which is a bit north of Marble Falls, which, in turn, is north of San Antonio). It’s a bit odd to find this work speaking to New Yorkers. I, for one, have never been anywhere near Texas, yet it speaks to me.
Is it the isolation that’s an inherent part of modern living? The foreboding of our times? The nostalgia for small town life, or times gone by, many transplanted urban dwellers retain? Or? Is it they just appreciate amazingly good painting? I still can’t say. I probably fall into all of those groups. From my earliest days looking at Art Books when the uncanny micro-imagery of Jan Van Eyck astounded me (and still does), to Durer, Goltzius, Richard Estes and on and on, I’ve looked at a lot of work that has a level of technique some would label super-human. No one can deny that his “Oh my god” astonishment inducing level of technique is part of the charm of Rod Penner’s work. But, it goes much deeper.
The size of his work, which he speaks of being a response to large works he sees proliferating, is also a way of putting the world around us, and by extension even our own worlds, in perspective. Seen from a distance? The abandonment of some of the failed businesses is undiscernible, and hence, it’s impersonal, a bit like passing through a town in a moving car. Move closer and all of a sudden detail after detail after even more detail comes into focus. From then on, it’s up to you to decide. The effect of looking closely at such small paintings is not unlike looking closely through old family albums, where the photos are small, what’s in them looks “old,” even though, Mr. Penner is painting scenes that may still exist. It’s work that stands up to, and demands, repeated viewings. Up close viewing.
The gallery handout speaks of the “hope” in these works. I never see construction or new building going on. The skies look ominous to me. There is virtually no activity to be seen in any of these works, save for a lone car in the distance in a few of them. It’s hard to tell if people are even home in the house depicted below, with it’s two huge inflatables out among it’s Christmas decorations. Yes, humor, usually a little subtler, is in these works, too. Yet, the peeling paint on the house’s walls gives the feeling of “times are hard, but we’re celebrating Christmas anyways.” I don’t know if that’s hope, but it’s at least perseverance.
While William Eggleston shows details of southern scenes that grab him, Rod Penner takes a step back. Or 50 steps back, usually half way into the street. He casts a wide angled lens (figuratively, not photographically) on a tiny canvas. Many hundreds of years ago works this size by Duccio and others were meditation objects. In works like these, they still are.
Ok. But, Vermeer, Nighthawk? Perhaps THE most desired, and one of the most revered Artists in Art History? Seriously? Well, I don’t believe in comparing Artists qualitatively, but I see some similarities. Mr. Penner speaks in interviews about being into the Hudson River School and the early Flemish Masters, himself, but consider this- Though Vermeer is famous to us, mostly, for his interior scenes, there are two outdoor works of his that we have- “View of Delft,’ which is thought to have been painted when the Artist was 28 or 29, relatively early in his short career, his last outdoor work known to us, now in Mauritshuis, The Hague, and his “The Little Street,” which is in the Rijksmuseum, painted a year or two before. Both, but especially the latter, remind me of Rod Penner.
“The Little Street” shows us what seems to be a typical doorway scene of daily life, with one door and one passage way open to show us the inside, turning this into a classic Vermeer “tease,” among another closed door and 19 windows that are either boarded up or dark preventing our seeing inside. Removing the two women leaves the cloudy (“Penner-esque,” to copyright a term) sky, the similar state of the well lived-in buildings, and the cobblestone streets (roughly equivalent to Mr. Penner’s ever-present cracked pavement, which, as seen below, resembles cobblestone), are among the similarities I find between this Vermeer and Rod Penner’s new works at Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe. They’re an echo, let’s say, across 350 years and thousands of miles. Here’s one example, but I see elements in the other works by Mr. Penner on view here.
But yes, there are no people in any of these Penners. In that sense, he may be part of another part of Art History, that of American 20th Century Artists Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Ralston Crawford and Richard Estes, who painted many scenes without people, though, of course, Hopper painted many with them as well.
Another thing that Mr. Penner has in common with Vermeer is that his amazing technique is always painterly, it’s always put in the service of his message, and that message is NOT to replicate a photo. In addition to seeing more of the “iceberg,” I also had the equally unexpected privilege of spending a few moments speaking with the mythical Artist, himself, at the show’s opening tonite, and he spoke of waking a few weeks ago and feeling unhappy with the foreground pavement in his most recent work, “View of San Saba,” seen below, and so he changed it- In ways that had nothing to do with the reference photos he had of it. Then he mentioned that he also uses sketches, video and other mediums to capture his thoughts of his subject, though he doesn’t paint “en plain air,” or paint on the spot.
I hope not. These works take him weeks to complete, and that’s part of why there are so few of them being offered. This show represents this year’s work. The other part is that current owners are holding on to them.
I also asked him how he felt about the term “photorealism,” which gets applied to him, and others, like Richard Estes. He said he doesn’t like it, which I was happy to hear. He prefers “Photo-influenced.” There’s only one term to apply to Rod Penner’s work- Art. His work is masterful. It speaks to so much going on right now in our country, and in our world, yet it, also, speaks every bit as much to the past, and it’s all done in ways that are uniquely his own, though many people seem to relate to.
“He says he’s been to Texas
And that’s the only place to be
Big steaks, big cars, no trouble here
That’s the place for me.
I’m going to Texas (yeah, yeah)
I’m going to Texas”*
It’s interesting to me that Mr. Penner is a transplant to Marble Falls, Texas from Vancouver, (which must be as different as Marble Falls seems to a Manhattanite), because that reminds me of the work of another Vancouverite- Photographer Fred Herzog‘s, which I just saw at AIPAD. Is it a coincidence that both of these past & present (Herzog) Vancouver resident’s work has a universality that surmounts the place it depicts, and where it is seen?
Though the world is a very big place, Rod Penner’s work shows us that it’s really made up of a lot of small places.
*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Texas,” by Chris Rea, published by Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com