Rod Penner (b. 1965), originally from Canada but now based in Texas, is a photorealist painter who specialises in depicting scenes of small town America—the buildings often abandoned and showing the ravages of time—in and around his adopted home state. Author, and leading proponent of photo-realism, Louis K. Meisel, has described Penner as being ''...one of the top two or three artists in the world...''  in terms of his ability to create images that demonstrate a near photographic likeness; the technique and level of skill demonstrated far surpassing that of the first generation of artists from the US who sought to portray quotidian aspects of 20th century American life with increasing levels of objectivity on a two-dimensional surface during the late 1960s and into the 70s.
I’ve long been an admirer of Penner’s work and thought I’d pose a series of questions to him about his development as a painter, the technical challenges encountered when creating his pictures, and his views on and the current state of photorealism. He kindly accepted this offer and I am thankful to him for his time and for being my first interviewee in this series of conversations with leading realist artists.
This conversation was conducted by email in August 2020.
Note: Throughout this interview, I have chosen to use the term photorealist when referring to Penner’s images in addition to other artists associated with this mode of working. The intention behind this is to achieve a sense of consistency and familiarity for a general audience when multiple—often contested—terms are available to describe this style of image-making (realist, new-realist, hyper-realist, super-realist, etc). It should be noted, however, that Penner prefers the term ''photo-informed'' due to the fact that he very often does not simply copy a single reference photograph.
NS: Niall Stevenson
RP: Rod Penner
NS: I’d like to begin by going back to the beginning of your artistic career and learn a bit more about your initial impetus for wanting to pursue the path that you are now on. You mentioned in a previous interview that while you were studying at university in the 80s, you found yourself at odds with certain aspects of the curriculum. Can you elaborate on this tension? Were you pushed to make work in a certain style? Was realism encouraged? What kinds of images did you end up making during this period and did you already have ambitions to further the development of photorealist painting?
RP: I found myself at odds with certain aspects of the theology, not the art curriculum. While the university professors and instructors were sympathetic towards representational painting, they also encouraged all types of artistic expression. I entered as a sophomore and spent my first two years there experimenting with a wide variety of styles including abstract and minimalist painting. It wasn't until my senior year that I became more interested in a style of painting influenced by John Salt, Alex Colville, and Christopher Pratt.
NS: How did you find making the transition from university towards establishing a career as a photorealist painter? Did you, like almost all other artists, go through a period of financial uncertainty before you really developed the style you are now known for and started to make a living with your work?
RP: I graduated in 1986 with a B.A. in Studio Art at the age of 20. Two months later, my wife, Debbie, and I were married and we moved to British Columbia where I had grown up. I applied my technical skills to wildlife illustration which I had enjoyed as a teen and after accepting a few commissions to pay bills, was soon represented by a well-known wildlife art gallery in Colorado.
In 1988, my wife's younger brother died in a cycling accident. We decided to move back to her hometown of Houston and I saw it as an opportunity to part ways with illustration and refocus on painting subject matter I gleaned from my surroundings in local small towns. During this time, my wife and I both worked full-time while setting aside evenings and weekends for painting. I gained representation by a well-known Houston gallery but not many paintings sold. In 1991, our second child was born and then, just a few months later, my youngest brother died in a plane crash. During those two and a half years, we had experienced both extreme joy and absolute sorrow and it had a profound effect on my art. I became laser-focused and worked extremely long hours.
Near the end of 1991, I sent 35mm slides of my paintings to Ivan Karp at O.K. Harris Works of Art in NYC. He invited me to bring several paintings to his gallery. Ivan later admitted that when he heard that I had accepted his offer and was actually driving from Houston to Manhattan, he was going to farm my work out to a lesser-known gallery. His mind was immediately changed when he saw the paintings in person. All four paintings sold within a week for prices that were five times higher than what they were listed for in Houston. This marked a huge turning point for us both professionally and financially. My wife was able to quit work and focus on raising our children while I painted full-time . Don't get me wrong, it was still often difficult at times, but we managed to make it with God's help.
NS: You are on record as stating that your initial encounter with photorealist painting resulted in a sense of disappointment. Why was this? Was it due to a lack of detail, concerns with subject matter, or something else?
RP: My initial exposure to photorealist painting was entirely thru printed material. When I encountered the actual works of art, they were more painterly than I expected. The subject matter of some painters had left me cold. I wanted to take it to another level.
NS: Your paintings often feature abandoned buildings, cracked tarmac, and scenes that verge on being urban wastelands. Is your work primarily about conveying a sense of loss or isolation?
RP: In a way, yes. I’m interested in connecting with the viewer on a deeper psychological level that transcends specific buildings and/or locations. I’m not a romantic and have never been interested in the backstories of my subject matter. I have enough respect for the viewers to allow them to arrive at their own conclusions and interpretations without the need to tell them what to think.
NS: How do you find the act of going out into the world and taking photographs to work from at a later date? Is this aspect of your work particularly enjoyable or can it be a struggle to find suitably stimulating subject matter?
RP: It’s a cliché, but honestly my subject matter finds me. I usually stumble on a specific scene while driving through a small town on our way to family or school events. Once I photograph a street or building, I’ll spend as much time as possible exploring the rest of the town. The joy of discovery never gets old.
NS: How do you go about editing the photos you take? From what I understand you use photoshop to make alterations to images; is there a consistent trend to the type of adjustments you make?
RP: Once I’m back in the studio, I spend a lot of time poring over my photos. I’m constantly looking at photos I took years ago because, as time passes, I see these images with a fresh eye. I’m not a great photographer or very good with photoshop, but I don’t need to be. My photos are my sketches - a jumping-off point. Most editing consists of removing objects or people and adding “wear and tear” to structures in order to heighten the sense of melancholy and isolation. I am not a slave to my photographs.
NS: One aspect of your work that I’m particularly interested in and that may go entirely unrecognised by viewers who see the paintings is your use of multiple scenes or viewpoints as source material when creating a composition. Do you feel this working out of a balanced structure on the canvas (using several photographs) is the main creative challenge when making a painting and if so, why is this important? One criticism often levelled against photorealism is that it’s ‘just a copy of a photograph’ but you seem quite intent to negate this.
RP: Occasionally, a single photo is all the reference I need but, more often than not, multiple sourced images are required to provide the information necessary to produce a strong composition. Each painting presents a unique set of challenges. Whenever possible, and regardless of distance, I make multiple trips back to the actual location to photograph, sketch, and most importantly, to just sit and ponder and soak it all in.
A recent example of this is when I was working on a painting of a scene from Vaughn, New Mexico and needed more information to complete the painting. I drove back to Vaughn, which was a 1200-mile round trip, to study the location and take more photographs.
The final painting is all that matters and I’ll do whatever I have to do to make it perfect. Of course perfection is unattainable but I convince myself that I’ll achieve it on the next painting.
NS: How do you go about transferring information onto a surface? Is everything drawn freehand before adding paint or do you also use mechanical means (projectors, stencils, etc.) as an aid when laying out an image?
RP: I no longer use projectors because I was tired of constantly having to adjust them in an effort to keep the image lined up with my drawing on the canvas. It’s now a smorgasbord of methods and tools ranging from free-hand drawing to grids and stencils.
NS: I know from previous conversations we’ve had just how particular you are about the surfaces you work on; adding multiple layers of primer to an already very fine-grained surface and then wet sanding it so that the canvas almost resembles a sheet of paper, devoid of visible texture. You’ve also said that you do not wish to mimic the surface of a printed photo when making a picture. Could you comment on this apparent contradiction further?
RP: My obsession with a glassy-smooth canvas has to do entirely with the way acrylic paint reacts to the surface. I like the way it slides around. A textured canvas interferes with my technique.
NS: How do you think your work had changed since the early 90s? Has it become looser or more preoccupied with elements of abstraction?
RP: Back in the 90’s, I mostly worked from 35mm slides and the paintings were slightly looser then. And while age has caused me to slow down a bit, I’ve been doing this practically every day for 30+ years, my paintings currently require more time and effort to complete.
Presently, my compositions are more thought-out and I enjoy contrasting areas of open sky and/or roads with areas of complex detail. It gives the eye a place to rest. I divide my paintings into small sections that can be completed in one day. These sections, in essence, are smaller areas of abstraction pared down to shape, color, and form.
NS: Many people tend to focus on the technical mastery associated with photorealism; the subject matter often being subordinated to technique. What do you think photorealism offers viewers in the 21st century? Does it still have the power to make us look at the world with greater intensity? Robert Bechtle mentioned in a 2011 interview that ''A realist painters’ ploy is simply to look at the world (as it is)’ and that this is enough. Would you go along with this?
RP: I probably should have stated earlier that I dislike the term Photorealism. There are too many negative connotations associated with the label. I refer to my work as representational and/or “photo-informed.”
My technique works hand-in-hand with my subject matter. There is a familiar element to my work that draws people in. Without that human-interest connection, my work would just be a moot exercise in technique. I find our world to be incredibly mysterious and complicated. Life is both beautiful and messy. I could spend the rest of my days in any small town and never run out subject matter to paint.
NS: What do you think of the current status of photorealism within contemporary art? Do you feel like something of an outsider? I get the sense that the general public seem to be very enthusiastic about the genre due to its association with convention and skill but that people perhaps more engaged with art theory pay less attention to this style of painting or even dismiss it altogether.
RP: That’s an accurate assessment but not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I have never felt the need to be accepted by the contemporary art world. I’ve always considered myself as an outsider. I walk my own road.
NS: Following on from the question above, I wonder what you think about the position of photorealism outside of the United States. Other forms of visual art that originated in the US have become much more international in their outlook; given this, why do you think this style of painting is still seen as being quintessentially American? (Even someone like John Salt – arguably the most well-known non-American photorealist still relies on images taken during his time in the States as the basis for his work.) Is there something in the American landscape that is inseparable from the genre?
RP: I think it has to do with a calm objective view; a sense of joy and wonderment in discovering the world outside of ourselves that is quintessentially American.
Along with Salt, there are a number of hyperrealist painters living outside of North America that depict the American landscape. For me, it’s important to live in and amongst my subject matter.
NS: What is left to achieve for photorealism more generally? Can the movement be advanced in any way, or have artists reached the limits of their perceptual faculties with regard to attaining a sense of verisimilitude?
RP: I’m not interested in advancing a movement or genre. My objective is to paint my surroundings as honestly as I can.
NS: You have mentioned that you would like viewers of your work to have a spiritual experience. Where do you think this sense of transcendence comes from? Is the devotion (or time) you have put into the work the key aspect when creating a sense of ‘wonderment’, or the view represented to us? How important is the subject matter to the sense of revelation you hope to achieve?
RP: Whistler said, “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
My paintings are a quiet meditation on the transient nature of life. The subject matter evokes a sense of longing that comes from aloneness and isolation. This is reinforced by the repetitive and exacting nature of each days’ work and the patience required to see each painting through to the end.
NS: Do you ever feel limited due to the strains imposed by setting such a high standard for every canvas you create? There are many examples of photorealists abandoning the extreme levels of detail required to make sufficiently believable images, but you seem to have remained remarkably consistent in terms of your output over the years; for example, you don’t seem to have resorted to making quicker watercolour studies.
RP: I gain a great deal of satisfaction when a painting is completed knowing I gave it 100%. Consistency is extremely important to me and something I strive for each and every day. I’ve dabbled in watercolor, which is a very difficult medium, so I can’t help but greatly admire the watercolors of Bechtle, Goings, and others.
NS: I’m very interested in the fact that literal depictions of the world have come under fire from art critics for being too detached and sterile, and that they show nothing of an artist’s invention, or, to use what is perhaps an outdated term, soul. Do you see any truth to this intuition, or is it enough to say that any approach to image making is just as valid as any other in the sphere of the visual arts?
RP: Realist paintings might be easier to dismiss offhand, but there are plenty of examples of inferior and soulless paintings in every genre. At first glance, my “invention” might be less evident but it’s there, it’s just more disguised. Each of my paintings is a physical object made up of distinct and purposeful choices coupled with innumerable brush strokes. You might have to look a little harder to see my “hand,” but like all good art, I’m trying to reveal something of the human condition. And yes... any approach is valid.
NS: What are you currently working on?
RP: Earlier this year, I began a series of small paintings which will be exhibited in a one-man show at Miles McEnery Gallery, NY in February 2021.