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.

Q&A With Master Painter Rod Penner

During the recent show, “Rod Penner,” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe, I was fascinated watching visitor’s reactions to the work.

While it was hard to know if they were familiar with Rod Penner’s work, most seemed taken, startled & impressed with his incredible technique. But then, they lingered. Often for quite a while. I well know that feeling. How well the paintings are done is a hook that grabs your attention and pulls you in. What happens then? Well…That’s up to the individual viewer.


When you finally step back, you marvel that all of that took place in a space that’s 6 by 6 inches or 5 by 7 1/2 inches. When this first happened to me, in April, 2016, I was left with wonder. I wanted to know more about him and his art. Since I’ve now written about him and this show twice, perhaps others are curious, too. The AMY show answered some of my questions, primarily- Yes. He is THAT good. But, it raised others. I am very pleased to report that, after the show ended, and he arrived safely back in his now long time home in Texas, Rod Penner graciously agreed to answer some of my questions in a very rare Q&A. (For those interested in exploring his work still further, I’ve appended a list of resources known to me at the end of this Post. I welcome hearing about others I don’t know of.) What I’ve learned thus far has confirmed, at least to me, his place as a major Artist. That leaves the other question…

Who is Rod Penner?

“It’s your last chance
To check under the hood
Last chance
She ain’t soundin’ too good,
Your last chance
To trust the man with the star
You’ve found the last chance Texaco”*

Having previously shown his recent, small paintings, here’s one of his larger works. “Farmers Co-op Gin/Anson, TX” 20″ x 32,” 2012, All works by Rod Penner, Acrylic on Canvas, and are from rodpenner.com and amy-ny.com, unless otherwise noted. Click any image to see it full size.

Every work in virtually every show of Rod Penner’s work these past 25 years sold. Remarkable. Those owners are not parting with those pieces, which can be seen in his work not coming up at auction (as far as I know). 8 of the 9 pieces in this recent show were sold before the show opened. I believe the time has come for a closer look at what’s going on here.

“Joker Coffee Shop,” 6″ x 6,” 2016

What’s going on here, succinctly, is that Rod Penner is quietly creating a remarkably excellent body of Paintings, one that provides all the proof needed that he is a Master Painter.

“Ranch View, Vaughn MN,” 12′ x 18,” 2013. Compare this with the next two.

Not wanting to take up too much of Mr. Penner’s valuable time, with repetition of things John Seed has addressed in his 3 pieces about the Artist, my questions serve as supplements to those articles (linked at the end). What follows is about his life, and his Art, but I also felt it was important to ask this Master Painter about Art- What he looks for when he looks at Art. Mr. Penner has a deep knowledge of Art History and he is very open minded to styles & periods, perhaps surprisingly so to some. Typically, when I met him at the show’s opening, he told me he was off to The Met while he was in town to see “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers.” So? Having a great interest in all of this, I also had to ask him which Painters and periods he feels go under-appreciated these days.

“54 Grill, Vaughn, MN,” 30.5″x 64,” 2016

“Ranch View, Vaughn MN,” 4 INCHES x 4 INCHES!, 2013. These three works show 3 views of the same place, something Mr. Penner would revisit, in a way, in his recent show. This is the work that hooked me- the first piece of Mr. Penner’s I saw in April, 2016. Previously, I associated scenes like this with William Eggleston. Now? I think of Rod Penner.

Kenn Sava (KS)- In reading about your background, you’ve mentioned your folks being supportive of your skill and development, but I haven’t been able to learn if you studied with someone, if you studied Art in school, or if you are self-taught, as well as what road your education and development as an Artist took. Were you painting when you arrived in Texas? If so, were they the same (general) style as the work we see on your site from 1992, or did you ever work in a different style?

Rod Penner (RP)- Growing up, our family enjoyed camping, hunting, and fishing. I painted wildlife during this time, emulating the work of Robert Bateman and other Canadian wildlife artists.

After graduating from high school, I attended a local community college for one year and then transferred to Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma where I graduated with a B.A. degree in Studio Art, and while I found myself at odds with certain aspects of the theology, overall it was a positive experience. It was at ORU where I met my beautiful wife, Debbie, and we both made lifelong friends among the students and faculty.

Following college, we married in 1986 and moved to British Columbia. when I started intensely studying the work of Canadian realist painters, Christopher Pratt and Alex Colville. I had a lot of wildlife art commissions at this time and even started selling through a well-known gallery in Denver but the animals became less and less important in my paintings. In 1988, Debbie’s brother was killed in a biking accident, so we moved down to Texas to spend time with her family. We ended up staying and I welcomed the change as a way to start over with my art and break away completely from what I was doing. I got a part-time job teaching, but Debbie worked full time so I could paint. She has always believed in me and supported my efforts. The same year that our second child was born in 1991, my youngest brother died in a plane crash. Nine months later, I gained representation by Ivan Karp and his O.K. Harris gallery, allowing Debbie to quit work in order to stay at home to raise our children. I’ve supported our family ever since solely on the sales of my paintings.

“American Inn,” 6″ 6,” 2011

KS- What inspired you to get into Art? Who were the Artists you liked early on, and which influenced you early on?

RP- Shortly after arriving in the Lone Star State, I rediscovered the work of John Salt and felt an instant connection. I couldn’t drive past a trailer home (and there are many in Texas) without thinking “Salt.” At this point, I wanted to spend more time in the studio and less time searching out subjects to paint, so I started driving around the town we lived in and took photos of these tract houses that were everywhere. I found them visually interesting. As with all the streets and buildings that I paint, these homes, under certain weather and lighting conditions, became transformed. I painted my first tract house in 1989 and it sparked a series of paintings that were later shown at O.K. Harris in NY.

“Pink House with Big Wheels,” 36″ x 54,” 1992, the earliest work in his online Archive.

KS-Your last show at AMY was in 2013. Two of these pieces are dated 2016, the rest 2017. How do you feel your work has changed/evolved since your last show?

“Mr W, Lubbock, TX,” 12″ x 18,” 2013, which appeared in his 2013 AMY, NYC show

RP- Up until 2016, all my previous “micro” paintings were square in shape, but for this show, most of the canvases have a 2:3 size ratio.

I’ve also been exploring more towns in New Mexico.

KS- The work on the catalog’s cover, which is dated 2015 (and is not in this show) appears to be part of this series- a fascinating, alternate view of San Saba Butane. Are there others works in this series?

“San Saba Butane, San Saba, TX,” 12″ x 18,” 2015, which appears on the recent show’s exhibition catalog’s cover, but which was not in the show. The Painting that was in the show is below.

RP- The painting you’re referring to measures 12 x 18 inches and is based on the photos I took for the series in my show. I’m currently working on a 10 x 15 inch painting of San Saba which will be my final painting in this series. These two paintings will be included in my next exhibit.

KS- I’ve seen you’ve done two views of a same scene in the past, but is this the first “series” of paintings you’ve done (I know of 10 that are a part of it) of a relatively small area (which feels like it’s within a few blocks), with source material from the same time? Was this a conscious decision- to do a series? Or, is it just coincidental, and the works should be considered independently of each other. (I’m not sure I can do that!)

RP- 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.

KS- How is your work received locally? Especially in San Saba, if these have been seen there?

RP- I sent a news release for the exhibit, along with some jpegs of my paintings, to a local paper in San Saba but never heard back. Since I don’t show in my hometown of Marble Falls, and rarely in the state of Texas, my work is largely ignored and/or misunderstood. Texas residents have an understandable pride in their communities and my paintings don’t always portray these towns in a cheerful light. However, I’m not interested in painting a romanticized and sanitized version of small-town America. San Saba, along with every town I paint, has its own character, its own curiosities and quirks, its own grit, as well as its own beauty…

So many good memories have been made in this town, but it’s taken almost 16 years for everything to come together in order for me to paint it.

KS- I’m fascinated by “San Saba Butane.” Without giving away it’s mystery, is this a place you’re at all familiar with, or is your interest in it purely pictorial?

“San Saba Butane,” 6″ x 6,” 2017, as seen in this show.

RP- I first photographed San Saba Butane around 15 years ago and have witnessed its slow deterioration over the years. Who owned it and what it was used for doesn’t interest me.

KS- We’ve discussed people calling your work “photorealism,” yet there is a lot of abstraction in your work- the clouds, the cracks in the pavement, the tree branches, patterns of bricks, peeling paint, and on and on. Of course you know it’s there. What role do you feel abstraction plays in so-called realistic or representational Art? Do people ever notice it? I also saw you mentioned John Zurier, and that makes me wonder if he’s influenced your skies.?

RP- The formalist qualities in my paintings are important. The placement and shapes of clouds, pavement cracks, branches, etc, is always intentional. I’m good at arranging these components within a picture plane while photographing, but afterward, I edit, so that these elements ultimately serve my purpose which is to create a certain mood and a strong composition. Also, you’ll find smaller engaging areas of abstraction within the paintings which I enjoy incorporating. I think this comes from studying and appreciating a range of different styles of painting.

Regarding Zurier, I’m not consciously thinking of his work while painting my skies, but I’m sure he’s influenced certain elements of my art. He creates this terrific sense of light and weather with just pure pigment and the mood in his paintings elicit a certain quiet meditative self-reflection.

“Commerce St, Brenham TX,” 24″ x 36,” 2002. One of two Paintings I’ve seen of his with an actual person in it.

KS- You’ve been in Texas just about 30 years now, would you have been shocked if someone told you in 1988 you’d be here for (at least) 30 years? Does being originally from somewhere else (a city, no less) help you in painting these scenes you’ve been doing all these years?

RP- The Texas Hill Country is a wonderful place to raise a family. Moving here from Canada allowed me to observe my surroundings with the objectivity of an outsider. I don’t have any memories of these locations before the age of 22; however, they do evoke memories from my childhood, but it has little or nothing to do wth a specific building or street. On the flip-side, living here for almost 30 years has endeared me to Texas, and prevents me from patronizing my subject matter.

KS- In the introduction to the show’s catalog, Mr. Seed mentions your reacting against big (large) painting by others in these quite small works. What is it about big paintings that you don’t like?

RP- I don’t dislike large paintings per se, only pretentious, self-serving large paintings that tell me what to think and feel, and much of the current art world seems to embrace that kind of work.

“Bertram Supply Co, Bertram, TX,” 36″ x 54.” 2016. One of Mr. Penner’s larger works.

KS- Your taste in art is wonderfully eclectic, ranging from the Dutch & Flemish Masters to the Hudson River School to contemporary Artists including Andy Piedilato. Is there a common thread to the Art you like? When you look at painting, what do you look for? What makes someone an excellent or great painter in your book?

“Ice Spine,” 102″ x 126,” 2015, left and “Pinched Red Sail,” 100″ x 117,” 2016, right, by Andy Piedilato, seen at Danese Corey, NYC, in October, 2016

RP- Someone who has command of their medium and uses it to express mature ideas.

KS- What do you think of NYC? Has anything you’ve seen here ever grabbed you to paint it?

RP- NYC is our favorite place to visit but no, I have never felt an urge to paint it.

KS- Finally, if you were going to suggest to Art Lovers they look at one thing, one style, period or (I’m not a big fan of this word- “school”- unless the Artists themselves put themselves in that group), or the work of one Artist, that you feel has been overlooked, or is especially “important” today, what, or who, would it be?

RP- Perhaps the Tonalists; John Francis Murphy, Bruce Crane, and Birge Harrison are three of my favorites. Contemporary painter Catherine Murphy is in a class of her own. John Salt definitely deserves more attention and credit.

For anyone interested in knowing more about Rod Penner’s Art, as I write, the current resources are-
-Rod Penner has a website, which includes an Archive of his work that goes back to 1992, and includes links to his FB and Instagram pages.
-Ameringer McEnery Yohe has additional info, and details on the past shows they’ve held for Rod Penner here. They also published a catalog for this recent show, and copies of it may (keyword “may”) still be available through them. I’d hurry.
-John Seed’s two pieces may be found here, and here. He also wrote a piece for the AMY catalog.
(And, I have written about him twice, here and here.)

I’m grateful to Rod Penner for taking the time to answer my questions, for speaking with me at the very hectic opening of his show, and to his wife, Debbie, and their family, for allowing him to take some time away from them to do so. They’ve been married 31 years. I should have asked him what the secret to that is!

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Last Chance Texaco,” by Rikki Lee Jones, from the classic album of the same name, and published by Rikki Lee Jones. You can see her perform it here.

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

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.

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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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.”

The Vermeer of Marble Falls, Texas

“Warm winds blowin’
Heat ‘n’ blue sky
And a road that goes
Forever…
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.

See the little square on the left? That’s Rod Penner’s “Ranch View Motel,” seen in an Installation View of a group show at George Adams Gallery in April, 2016. Click to enlarge.

Rod Penner, “Ranch View Motel,” 6 x 6 INCHES!, 2013. 

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.

What?

Small wonders. Installation View of all of “Rod Penner” at Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, tonite. The “larger” works are 5 x 7 1/2 inches. The square ones are only 6 x 6 inches!

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.

Rod Penner, “Commie’s Tacos,” 2017, all of 5 x 7 1/2 inches of it. Seen from afar, it’s streets and buildings.

 

Close-up. Like peering through the looking glass, more and more details emerge, allowing the viewer to imagine a narrative.

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.

Rod Penner, “Yard Inflatables,” 2016, 6 x 6 inches. Mr. Penner includes  humor surprisingly often. You can see “in-progress” shots of this work, here.

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.

Vermeer, “The Little Street,” 1657-58, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. It looks like Vermeer liked to stand in the middle of the street, too.

“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.

On another “little street.” Boarded up windows, a closed door (with “For Lease” sign), an “aged” brick building, the cracked street resembling cobblestones, under a “Penneresque Sky,” all rendered with exquisite skill. Rod Penner’s, “The Studio,” 2017, 5 x 7 1/2 inches, also speaks to hard times for the Arts everywhere.

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.

Who knew butane was ever that popular? Or? Is he pulling our leg? Rod Penner, “San Saba Butane,” 2017 6 x 6 inches

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.

Rod Penner’s just completed “View of San Saba,” 2017, 5 x 7 1/2 inches, with it’s new foreground.

“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?

He’s real! Rod Penner, in person, left, introduces his most recent work, “View of San Saba,” 2017, 5 x 7 1/2 inches, at Ameringer tonite.

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.

(My subsequent Q&A with Rod Penner is here. Further thoughts about this show are here.)

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Texas,” by Chris Rea, published by Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right, for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.
This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com