Rod Penner: Brilliance, Under Cloudy Skies

“Rod Penner” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe is my NoteWorthy Show for May.

“Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear”*

It turns out to have been more than worth the wait. The chance discovery of Rod Penner’s rarely seen work in April, 2016, left me eager to see more of it for the past year. Finally, that chance came. Yes, I wrote about this show’s opening, and my first impressions of it, a while back, when I was also lucky to meet Mr. Penner. Having returned to see the 9 remarkable Paintings that made up “Rod Penner” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe through May 26 (his first NYC show since 2013) a number of times after the April 27 opening, I realized I needed to also revisit it here because these are works that do not reveal all their secrets at first glance, and also because so little has been written about the work of Rod Penner, basically, three pieces by John Seed. Given the amazing & consistently high quality of his work, and the fact that he’s been a successful Painter for over 25 years, who’s shows routinely sell out (8 of these 9 were sold before the show opened), that’s hard to believe. This show is a great chance to get a closer look, as it represents most of the work he’s created in the past year, and because the works are related, they form a “series.” When I asked the Artist about this, he told me-

“This show is a first for me in the sense that it is a series of paintings based on photos taken on a single morning of a single town. Most of the locations are in and around the town square of San Saba, TX, and when viewed together they form a more comprehensive “portrait”, both of the town itself, and my personal experiences in this place. That being said, each painting is also meant to stand on its own.”

San Saba is about an hour north of Austin, almost smack dab in the middle of Texas. The resulting works are at once intricate and sublte, so deep, so brilliantly conceived and almost miraculously executed, I now have a feeling they will be revealing their “secrets” indefinitely.

“View of San Saba,”also 5 x 7 1/2 INCHES. The “center” of Rod Penner’s painted “neighborhood.”All works by Rod Penner, 2017, Acrylic on canvas, unless specified, seen at “Rod Penner,” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe. Click any image to see it full size and better see the detail.

When I met Mr. Penner, he spoke about the newest work in the show, “View of San Saba.” So new, it wasn’t completed in time to appear in the show’s catalog, the first book ever published on Rod Penner (and available from Ameringer McEnery Yohe, as I write this). It’s a work that a quick glance fails. I wondered about the empty spaces in the foreground, left and right. Why is there so much of it in a work that’s supposed to be a “view” of a town? It scrunches the actual town into a narrow band that accounts for maybe one third of the Painting. These empty spaces along the sides give us a sense of perspective, a sense of space that is, after all, a trade mark of Texas, I hear, which would be missing if Rod Penner had cropped the view closer to the “BUY PECANS HERE” sign, and which would also give the sign an importance he, apparently, didn’t want it to have. The feeling would be completely different. Also, doing this “sets a stage” for the rest of the composition, something Mr. Penner seems fond of doing.

And? It turns out the foreground is an extraordinarily interesting part of the work. Ok, that’s coming from a die hard Manhattanite, a true connoisseur of pavement, street, curbs, and sidewalks, someone who never sees grass. Mr. Penner told me that as the work neared completion, he became unhappy with the pavement to the front left, so he redid it. Take that, everyone who thinks he’s a so-called “photorealist,” or “hyper-realist,” someone who paints exactly and only what’s in a reference photo. First, there’s a very unusual (in real life) crack that runs directly down the very middle of the street, which serves to draw us further and further into the painting.

Detail of the pavement in the foreground, larger than actual size, reveals almost endless details, down to the reflection of the back of the Stop sign in the puddle. Interestingly, every Stop sign in these works is seen from the back. Even in reflection.

It’s an old street. The curbs are worn, where they are still there. The pavement has been patched. Well, some of it has. Water pools in holes that still need to be. Yet, for the most part, the concrete is holding together. After all these years. After all these cars, trucks, people, and whatever else travels on the roads of San Saba, Texas have passed over them. Yes. You can still get there from here.

Beyond the technical tour de force of skill on view in this, and in everything in this show, more importantly, every centimeter of it drips with character.

The skies always seem to be ominous. Sometimes a small patch of sun is fighting to make it’s way through. Maybe it will. Maybe rain is on the way. (I call theses skies “Penneresque” now when I see one). Just as long as it’s not a tornado, right? The old County Court is still standing. You can see it’s tower to the left, in the first Photo up top. Interestingly, it’s not quite as tall as the phone pole1

When I look at the finished work, the feeling of isolation, life lived, the present time, and time past (as in the patched pavement to the right in the front), and the feeling of being an outsider is reminiscent of that in works by Edward Hopper or Charles Sheeler, but not specific works. Though he has a foot in Art History, Rod Penner is an original.

But we aren’t in San Saba. We aren’t in Texas. We’re 1,744 miles away by car or 1,513 miles as the crow flies at Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery on West 22nd Street in Manhattan, NYC. An entirely different world, right? We’re not even looking at Photographs, which seems to be a reaction of some who only see these works online in, yes, Photographs, and have trouble believing someone can really paint THIS well. We’re looking at Paintings. VERY small Paintings that are either 5 by 7 1/2 inches, or 6 by 6 inches each! Acrylics on canvas. In creating these works at paperback book size, I don’t believe the purpose was to show off his extraordinary skill (which happens as a byproduct). The size brings an intimacy that makes the viewer look closely to see, and once you start looking, you’ll see more and more, which can turn the experience into something of a meditation.

“View of San Saba” is installed on one of 3 walls where the paintings look out, and on to each other. Therein lies an additional element that becomes apparent when seen together. As Mr. Penner said, each work stands alone. Yet being at this show one can’t help noticing that there’s, also, a “little world” in these 9 Paintings that comes together in “View of San Saba.” Taken as a whole, this gives a feeling of walking around a small neighborhood (typically New York comment, right?), and based on “View of San Saba,” it is walkable. No less than 5 of the buildings featured in the 8 other works here reappear in it, making it something of a centerpiece of this “series” for me.  I constructed these maps to show what I mean,

Installation View of “Rod Penner” @ Ameringer, McEnery & Yohe shows it’s a small neighborhood. The lines connect 5 individual works with “View of San Saba,” far right, where the same buildings are seen, again.

“Map” of “View of San Saba” showing the location of the 5 Buildings also shown in their own Paintings, which follows. The numbers are from the order they appear in the show, as seen in the prior Photo.

So, yes, as I said, “you can still get there from here,” if you walk straight down the street, following that center crack. Along the right, first, “Buy Pecans Here,” is the subject (and title) of a closer view of the same structure, below. Then, on it’s corner, and across the street on the right is G&R Grocery, which is seen in no less than two other works here- “G&R Grocery,” and “Armadillo Country.” And finally, a few blocks almost dead ahead (slightly left) is the building in “The Station.” Here are the five Paintings in question. There could be much to be said about each.

#1 in the “Map” above, “G & R Grocery,” 2016, 5 x 7 1/2 inches. That reminds me. G&R is also the home of Texas’ famous “Bill’s Season All,” as the sign says. I have to remember that when I need to reorder it.

NYC’s & Texas’ finest in the NighthawkNYC kitchen.

#2- “Buy Pecans Here,” 5 x 7 1/2 inches

#3 “The Station,” 6 x 6 inches. It’s foreground pavement endlessly enthralls me.

#5 “Armadillo Country” 5 x 7 1/2 inches

#4 does get a section to itself. My personal favorite among all of these works (not an easy call) is one I find endlessly fascinating, on a number of levels- “San Saba Butane.” All 6 by 6 inches of it. The right rear side of it is, also, #4 in the Map, above.

#4- “San Saba Butane,” 6 x 6 inches. Depending on the device you’re using, this photo may be close to the actual size of the Painting.

On one level, you could look at it and think about hard times, about a business that stood for a long time, carrying the hopes and dreams of it’s owner, until it finally moved elsewhere, or went under. There’s no indication of which here. What there is, it seems to me, is a masterpiece of realism in which abstract and realistic elements are weaved together so seamlessly, they achieve an almost perfect balance, each supporting the other. After all, when we see the world, our eyes see things that are abstract as well as “real” (be they reflections in windows or water, and on and on- they are everywhere once you look for them). It’a all based on a rectangular box seen at an angle that provides the basis of everything else that Mr Penner hangs on it or adds to it, and around it. One time I looked at this and thought “It’s a Robert Rauschenberg meets Anselm Kiefer structure under a “Penneresque” sky, as I named them last time, maybe with a hint of John Zurier in it, and with Lucian Freud pavement. Another time, I fancied that the historic “Battle of San Saba Butane” had been fought here, leaving Texas another monument, akin to the Alamo. But, alas, history records no such battle (as far as I know). There is, instead, a completely peaceful stillness to the building, though it’s surrounded by turbulent skies and pavement that appears almost liquified in places. To get to it’s door, you have to cross the rough, wet road in the foreground before arriving on the slightly surer footing of the (wet) pavement, and then to the “safety” of the awning, only to find the building it’s attached to is just an empty shell, and not a real “destination.” This “having to cross questionable or unstable ground in the foreground to get to the heart of the work” is present in many of Rod Penner’s works. It takes the eye on a journey, and makes it work to get to the core of the composition.

This section is about 3 inches tall by 6 inches wide in the Painting, shown here larger than actual size (once you click on it). Even the wear and tear on the sign’s lettering is brilliantly rendered.

Whatever struggle took place here, even the struggle of day to day business survival is over, and all is quiet in the building. In all it’s brilliantly rendered dilapidated glory, it’s still standing. Though it says “San Saba” on it, if you took the lettering off (but please don’t) this is another scene that can be seen in any state in the USA. It’s a part of the lifecycle of a business- the part where one has ended and a new one may begin. In that sense, it could also stand for life & death. It’s a tombstone for the business that was once here, and all the memories and history that went with it. It’s also a space where something new can begin. It’s real and surreal, intimate and repelling, liquid, solid and air, a place that it wouldn’t seem could possibly exist, somehow, except for that sign- “San Saba Butane” anchors the scene to earthen reality. I wondered about that sign at first, in my first Post, then thought- “No. It’s probably a real name. No one could make that up, right?”

One look at “San Saba Butane” in comparison to how it appears on the extreme left of “View of San Saba” and you realize that there’s no building behind it now! The Artist, himself, pointed this out to me. The whole right side of “San Saba Butane” shows a different view than what’s behind it in “View of San Saba.”

Detail of the right side of “San Saba Butane”

Detail of the left side of “View of San Saba”

Mr. Penner said, “In San Saba Butane, I removed the building you see in View of San Saba. The area right of the station needed to be opened up some… too claustrophobic… in order to allow the eye more room to wander. The stop sign and hydrant are the same ones you see in “View of San Saba.” That sound you heard was a hammer putting the final nail in the coffin of “photorealism” in regards to the work of Rod Penner.

Well? If this is a real place? I don’t care one bit what it “really” looks like. I don’t want to know. Well, I do know this- As much as I dislike qualitatively comparing creative work. I can’t put it any other way- I can’t think of a better Painting I’ve seen in the past year than “San Saba Butane.”

The next one is right up there, too.

“Commie’s Tacos,” 5 x 7 1/2 inches.

“Why did we stop here?,” I can hear someone in the backseat saying.

After all, we’re stopped in the middle of the road. “The light’s red up ahead,” might be one reply. “Not much to see here,” might be the new complaint. Hmmm…..The longer I look at this, the more I disagree.

First, there’s the skill involved in depicting this in all of 5 by 7 1/2 inches of canvas.

The same Painting, “Commie’s Taco’s,” seen from only 6 feet away.

When I looked closely at this one, I marveled at the detail on the two buildings to the left of center. The more I looked at this, the more I see. Every last clapboard is perfectly rendered, but all of it has character. Check out the bands on the back of the Stop sign, and on and on…

Detail of about 2 and 1/2 inches of the left side seen with a zoom lens.

To the right is a tan building, with a Spanish Tile roof, which would be fitting for a business with the name of Commie’s Tacos, the work’s name-sake, which is painted at an angle, and cut off making me wonder if Commie would ever want to buy this work and display it in his/her’s fine establishment, since it’s not even showing the whole restaurant. In fact, we wouldn’t know what the name of it was if it wasn’t the work’s title!

Commie’s, itself, in about 2 inches, with incredibly detailed concrete.

Then, I stared straight ahead, down that beckoning road you see in the first photo, which is what the composition seems to want. The looming street seems a bit more uneven, a bit rougher, than the fairly level ground we’re on now, judging from the masterfully rendered pavement.

Detail of about 4 inches of the foreground. Mr. Penner frequently puts pavement right in the front of his work, which is both daring and serves to set the stage. It’s a stage so well executed it looks real, and used. Notice the wide variety of surfaces.

We’ll pass trash cans, Yield signs and the ever present telephone poles. Further on, past the white house, it’s hard to say what we’ll encounter, well, before that vehicle with it’s headlights on. If we were standing on either of those corners, maybe we’d think that vehicle was coming for us. But, in the middle of the intersection? All bets are off. It’s hard to tell if Commie’s is even open for business. As in every work here, no one else is around.

As a result? There are none of the distractions people in a painting bring. None of the drama. Uh oh. Speaking of drama…

On the Fence, #6- Crow-No-Lisa”

Same with Commie’s. It’s painted at an angle and chopped off which serves to reduce it’s power and importance. The import, seems to me, to be in the feeling of place- of being here, now. Imagine for a moment what it must feel like to be a new resident to this street, seeing it for the first time, (as most viewers of this work are), and seeing the place you’ll now call home? What would living here be like? The residents are already connected to each other by wires, but you’re not. Would you be welcome? There’s rain on the ground, as there is in a number of these works, but the skies seem to be clearing. Keywords- seem to be. It looks to be a very typical street in a small town in Texas, in or near San Saba, but it could be almost anywhere. This scene could be in just about any one of the 49 states not named Hawaii.

Robert Frost talked about taking the road less traveled, “and that made all the difference.” What would he make of this road? Would he take it? Situated here, as we are, the answer isn’t clear, but if we are going down that side street, we’re in the wrong lane of traffic. Unless, we’re across the street at the other corner, waiting at a Stop sign there. Or, maybe it’s a scene seen in passing, or while stuck at a light to the left or right. One of those things we see for a minute, just long enough to wonder what’s down there? What it’s like down that street?

Seen from a normal distance, “Commie’s Tacos,” in it’s double frame.

Or? You could consider it a mediation on what once was on the corner, perhaps a house you grew up, that’s now gone. The level of detail enhances the “realism” of the work, and so, enhances the viewer’s ability to “experience” whatever he or she thinks and feels when they see it. Beyond the date the painting was done, we don’t know when this scene takes place (as we don’t in any of the works on view). It could be today, last year or 30 years ago. As such, it, and all the works here, are “portraits” of a place that’s beyond time and place. A place frozen in time that portrays an equally frozen moment that, the closer you look at it, you see “more” in. It raises more and more questions, or maybe even reminds you of a place and time, and brings back it’s feelings. Seeing this on the wall at Ameringer, in it’s interesting double frame, it’s a portal into a distant place that somehow doesn’t feel all that far away. A place somehow “known.”

Ameringer McEnery Yohe, 525 West 22nd Street, NYC, seen during the run of the show, appropriately, from the middle of the street, with wet pavement, under “Penner-esque” skies, that I hear came all the way from Texas.

I don’t know how the 2,783 residents of San Saba (in 2014) feel about these paintings, if they’ve seen them. More than likely, they prefer Mr. Penner paint other locations in their fine community. As someone who’s never been to Texas, when I look at them, as I’ve said, except for a sign here or there, I see places that could exist elsewhere. So, while they’re based on actual places in and around San Saba, as Mr. Penner said, they strike me as much as depicting America- places and things that could be seen anywhere in the country. I’m sure San Saba is a very different place than NYC is in a lot of ways. When I look at these Paintings? Not entirely different.

(My subsequent Q&A with Rod Penner is hereMy experience at this show’s opening and my initial impressions of it are here.)

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Here Comes The Sun,” by George Harrison from “Abbey Road” by The Beatles.

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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1.  Old Mother Pecan, one of the most unique trees in the world (I love trees), is still standing, too (thought not seen), not all that far away, 200 years later! Important for a place that calls itself the “Pecan capital of the world.”