Rod Penner’s Neighborhood

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?”*

In 1927, the Painter & Photographer Charles Steeler spent six weeks Photographing the 2,000 acre Ford Rouge plant in Detroit on assignment for an ad agency1. So taken by what he had seen there, over the next 9 years, he produced a series of Paintings of the plant based on the Photos he took. While both his Photos and his Paintings are now seen as classics, that’s perhaps the closest an Artist has come to creating a series of Paintings of a small neighborhood as seen at the same time. Now, the Artist Rod Penner tells me he has completed one such series. “Mr. Penner’s Neighborhood” (with apologies to Fred “Mr.” Rogers) of choice for his series of 2015-17 Paintings is San Saba, Texas, a town of about 3,000, an hour north of Austin, as seen in the source material he collected in various mediums (plural- they consist of more than Photographs he told me), during a trip he took there early one winter Saturday morning. To date, they had numbered 10 Paintings, 9 of which were shown at “Rod Penner,” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery, NYC in May2, (which I wrote about here and here. My follow-up “Q & A” with Rod Penner is here.)

“San Saba Butane,” 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 15 inches. Photo courtesy Rod Penner and Ameringer McEnery & Yohe. The first work in Rod Penner’s “San Saba Series,” and was not in the AMY show. Comparing this to the smaller work with the same title, I wrote about here, is endlessly fascinating. Click any to enlarge.

The tenth, (actually, the first to be completed in 2015), above, gives us a view of “San Saba Butane” seen from the side, which contrasts with the smaller painting of the same title that captivated me at the show where San Saba Butane is seen from the front. This perspective makes it part of a neighborhood, and not seem to be an island. A neighborhood where the other buildings seem to be in better condition, and most likely still in use. Here, it still looks like a relic, just a relic that is part of a large community, something we don’t often think of relics being. Interestingly for me, the lone car is stopped at a light, the only time this occurs in the San Saba series, as if symbolizing time standing still here.

The new 11th, and final, painting in his series is, interestingly, entitled “Welcome to San Saba.” I quickly moved past the irony of ending a series with a work that would seem to indicate it was the first work in the series to look at this photo of it.

The 11th and final work in Rod Penner’s San Saba Series, “Welcome to San Saba,” 2017, Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 15 inches. Photo by Rod Penner. Courtesy of the Artist and Ameringer McEnery Yohe.

Ah…G & R Grocery (cut off on the right), The Station (dead ahead, left of center)…some familiar sights from their own works in the show…the familiar damp streets… Yet? Much was new to me.  Take the mural on the yellowish wall seen facing us to the right of center, for instance. During the run of the show, I looked long and hard at the miniature version of that mural alongside the G & R in it’s 5 x 7 1/2 inch painting at Ameringer, below, where it is seen at a sharp angle, trying, in vain, to see what it depicted.

Flashback. “G & R Grocery,” 2016, 5 x 7 1/2 inches, as seen in the Ameringer show in May.

Seeing it now, face on, is “another part of the puzzle.” It’s a picture in a picture that adds a surreal element to this work, especially because we can’t really see all of the storefronts along the side of “Welcome to San Saba,” and so it seems to ask the question “Is THIS San Saba? Or, is what’s in the mural San Saba?” Well, I hear that hunting is second only to pecans as a business in San Saba, so? They both are. Maybe that’s why the deer in the mural has that “in the headlights” look, which mimics the distant car with it’s headlights on coming down the street. While we’re busy pondering all of that, one thing’s for sure, besides that car, there’s not a heck of a lot going on.

The perspective giving us this view strikes me as brilliantly subtle. We’re not exactly in the street, or on the curb. We’re not looking exactly straight down the sidewalk, or really, right down the street. Only the mural is seen whole, balanced by the facade of “The Station,” across the street in the distance. The pavement is masterfully done, as usual. It’s astounding, really. Right down to the varying degrees of wetness, and that horizontal crack breaking things up. While we’re admiring Mr. Penner’s technique, other visual pleasures include what can be seen of the facades of the stores seen in perspective, the peeling paint on the mural wall, and of course, the “Penneresque” skies, as I call them, this one different from some of the rest because it’s lacks any hint of the sun breaking through, or being covered up, as in the larger SS Butane. The bare tree on the left marvelously balances the piece, and is, like everything else, wonderfully done.

Flashback #2. “View of San Saba,” 2017, 5 x 7 1/2 inches. Looking down the same street as “Welcome to San Saba,” which takes place halfway up the road on the right, as seen at Ameringer in May.

Finally, there are the many festive lights, including those that run along the top of all the buildings, reinforcing that it’s the holiday season, which adds more poignancy for the viewer. The lack of people and cars, except for the distant one approaching makes this feel more haunting to me than “View of San Saba,” above, possibly because we’re not in the middle of the street now, and we’re right among the buildings. Odd for that time of year, there’s almost no activity, no one is shopping, doing errands, etc., save for the headlights of the car approaching in the distance.

It’s more than a terrific Painting. It’s a worthy end to a compelling, unique series.

As importantly, the more I looked at it, the more I realized it was effecting some of my thoughts about the rest of the series, and making me see “more” in them. As I mentioned last time, this series presents different views of much of the same small neighborhood in each succeeding work, with each angle presenting new information, and giving a new perspective. A subtly engrossing concept that adds another layer to the already meditative nature of his work, which takes us from pondering individual scenes to assessing the larger community, seen in the first, and last two works in the series. Assessing them, I’m reminded that I paid so little mention to the “Holiday” aspects I just mentioned that, also, recur in some of these works- “Yard Inflatables,” and “The Station,” as seen at Ameringer, (a pic of “The Station” I Posted previously). This combined with the universal absence of people, the often darkening skies lends a sense of isolation, even lonelieness that feels (to me, at least) akin to that in Hopper. But, that is the real joy of looking, and seeing what they say to you. Your results may differ.

It’s the holidays in the neighborhood. Rod Penner, “Yard Inflatables,” 2016, 6 x 6 inches, seen at Ameringer.

“Yard Inflatables” is, also, a charming example of Mr. Penner’s subtle humor. Something that also appears, in somewhat subtler form, in “Welcome to San Saba,” possibly in the title, itself. Mr. Penner, who describes himself as “an avid hunter, big on wildlife management and conservation,” also had to tell  me (because I’d never have guessed) the mural is a bit of a jab at some of his  some of his anti-hunting friends, and sent this photo of the actual mural along. I’m sure most residents disagree, but I like his version of it much better.

“Welcome to San Saba” Mural. Photo by, and courtesy of, Rod Penner. Interestingly different perspective than seen in the Painting.

The photo of the mural also puts yet another nail in the coffin of what’s called “photorealism,” something that has less and less to do with Mr. Penner’s work the more I see of it. Just compare it to the mural in the painting. So, if Rod Penner is not a “photorealist,” what is he? He’s an Artist. It’s becoming apparent to me that he is directly in the line of “American Realists”3 that goes all the way back to Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), and extends up through George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), the Hudson River School (including Thomas Cole 1801-1848 and Sanford Gifford 1823-1880),  Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), and yes, Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood are among others included by many). Not a bad “neighborhood” to be in. Speaking of those “neighbors,” I find myself wishing the whole series had gone to a museum, like the Whitney, where it would look wonderful along side their Hoppers and Sheelers, while showing that tradition is alive and well in 2017.

Rod Penner’s “San Saba Series,” strikes me as walking that line between intimacy and distance. Standing in front of someone’s house, especially at Christmas, has an intimacy to it that it probably wouldn’t have seen at any other time of the year. The owners are “letting us in” a little bit into who they are through their decorations. So is the town with it’s “public” holiday decorations, seen in the streets of “The Station” and “Welcome to San Saba.” Yet, there is an undeniable distance and an almost foreboding sense of isolation that’s reinforced by the ever-present, slightly ominous “Penneresque” skies. Works like the smaller “San Saba Butane” are not at all welcoming. Even if you were to venture inside the crumbling building, you wouldn’t really “be” anywhere. “View of San Saba,” above, the next to last work Mr. Penner completed, is also not welcoming. We may be risking our lives standing in the middle of that street for long with our backs turned. In “Welcome to San Saba, some lights are on, but nobody’s out. It’s a bit reminiscent of those old western movies when the bad guys come to town and everyone’s hunkered down indoors.

As the 9 Paintings at Ameringer McEnery Yohe sold, I now feel lucky to have been able to see that many of them in one place, since their “interaction” adds so much, as I’ve tried to show, and since who knows when that might happen again. Walking through these 11 Paintings, in my mind now, “Mr. Penner’s Neighborhood” still fascinates me and still makes me look deeper. I guess I’ve become a neighbor.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” by Fred M. (“Mr.”) Rogers.

On The Fence, #9, The Sitting Ducks” Edition

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  1. Some may be seen here.
  2. The show’s site is here.
  3. With all due respect to great Realists the world over.