Robert Pengelly Biography
Robert Pengelly’s urban views of Northern California’s Victorian neighborhoods are pristine, sanitized and carefully ordered. His selection of rectilinear, ornate architecture and manicured lawns is a legitimate symbol for conformity and order. Pengelly’s images, however, are not straightforward, there is a definite twist involved for he is interested in creating a tension based on elements working in opposition. He calculatingly manipulates forms and light to create a cool and airless scene that reads like a stage set. Intentionally, he plays on this staginess to create a sense of ambiguity whereby the images have significance beyond the obvious. Pengelly wants to elicit “a response which indicates a sense of loss of the familiar” and to change the viewer’s “visual attitude toward the visible.”
The facades of the houses are to be seen as masks, and in fact, be interpreted as portraits. Metaphorically, his houses stand for the external demeanor assumed or constructed by their inhabitants that conform to conventional social standards. The obscured interiors refer to the individuality that is all too often denied true expression. Just as Eleanor, in the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby keeps her face in a jar by the door, these images are also about masquerading and the dynamics of conformity which result in the suppression of true self.
Pengelly also asserts that there is something mysteriously erotic and seductive about these refined facades with their distilled shadows and manicured hedges, something suggestive of Victorian morality and suppressed sensuality. The personal and autobiographic elements are concealed. Only in the tension between the airless atmospheres, the rigid organization of forms and the exaggerated refinement of his compositions is there any indication of the artist’s interest in the dark side of social life and the perpetual human struggle between civility and primordial urges. Thus, in Country Life one might ask: what abuse is suffered in these stifling domestic settings? What dark dramas are being acted out behind these icons of perfectionism? The significance of these “pictorial expression of self”, are not readily apparent at first glance, but upon reflection there is something awry and ambiguous that beckons the pensive viewer to take a second look and to wonder.
— New Horizons in American Realism, Christopher Young, Flint Institute of Arts, 1991