Relja Penezic was born in Belgrade, in former Yugoslavia in 1950. He is a painter, video artist, printmaker, photographer, and a filmmaker. His work was a multimedia blend that combined technology and painting, performance and video, art and craft. In recent years he devoted himself completely to painting. Throughout his career he lived in Paris, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Constant moving and diverse culture exploration enriched his life and undoubtedly shaped him as an artist. He caught our attention with his series of paintings titled “California Road Chronicles,” inspired by his frequent travels between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 90s. Their cinematic quality brings to life one of the most scenic roads in the world and more than that, a certain mood of being alone in the car. By looking at his oeuvre, we as viewers feel pulled in, transported in that time, place and scene, like an invisible passenger.
Penezic exhibits his work internationally, and his short films are regularly shown at film festivals throughout the world.
When did you first realize that you could express yourself through art?
When people want to get a break from their children they often give them materials to draw or paint something. My parents used to do that too, but they didn’t expect I would get so hooked on it. I’ve learned to enjoy solitary activity of creating a mess with my color pencils and watercolors so much that they didn’t have to encourage me to draw something but rather to stop me so I would eat, go to the bathroom or do anything else. It escalated to the point where my mother found me in the basement one day with a large pair of scissors and her favorite lace embroidery white tablecloth cut into very small pieces based on its elaborate design and rearranged on the floor into a different composition. As a 4 year old, I wasn’t aware then that I was expressing myself, but I am now.
California Road Chronicles 83, 2020
How would you describe your artistic approach?
Existentialist and introspective. They say that a central tenet of existentialist philosophy is that personal freedom, individual responsibility, and deliberate choice are essential to the pursuit of self-discovery and the determination of life’s meaning. There is no more direct road to self-discovery than spending time alone in the studio painting. This approach requires solitude – more social isolation the better – and definitely doesn’t allow for acceptance and internalization of the current Art World’s curatorial agendas so it’s not very helpful for an immediate career success but the art resulting from self-discovery gives meaning to your existence.
Extreme Loafing & Idling 40, 2019
Many of your works are multimedia blend, that combines technology and painting. Why did you opt for this form of artistic expression?
I didn’t opt for it, it just happened. And I’m not doing that anymore, I’m just a painter again. In 1991 my childhood friend filmmaker Miodrag Certic who at the time was a partner in a postproduction company Fleet Street Pictures in San Francisco invited me to visit. He wanted to show me computer systems they used for motion graphics – Quantel Harry, Henry and Paintbox – and to see if I was interested in learning how to use them. He felt that most people who operated those machines were more computer geeks than artists and always required an artist or an art director to sit with them in the room to tell them what to do, and that it would be easier to teach an artist how to operate those systems than teach a computer engineer how to make art.
Rear Window View 1, 2021
Before I’ve seen Quantel machines I didn’t have any interest in digital art making, although I was vaguely aware of and intrigued by Chaos Theory and Benoit Mandelbrot’s work. But now I was blown away by the image making power of these machines. I accepted a Fleet Street offer and moved to San Francisco. When I wasn’t working on Fleet Street projects I was experimenting with digital image creation, collaging and filmmaking. One year later my wife, composer Victoria Jordanova, arrived to San Francisco and immediately got involved in local thriving New Music scene. One of the people she collaborated with was Randall Packer, a composer and a pioneer in interactive digital art. I’ve started working with Randall and Dave Berry (an Academy Award winning visual effects artist) on experimental film interactive projects. The 1990s San Francisco had a booming experimental art scene and I was actively involved in numerous events, shows, film festivals, music theater productions, etc.
Parking Space 8, 2023
I, also, worked with Victoria on various collaborations and by the mid 90s she was rather famous in San Francisco New Music scene and was able to win grant money for more ambitious projects. Our biggest project was “Panopticon” an interdisciplinary piece exploring Surveillance Society. Victoria composed the music and performed it with California E.A.R. Unit ensemble. I made a video with actor/writer Jeffrey Atik who played an admirer of Jeremy Bentham and the founder of the “Surveillance Chamber Music Society.” During performance I was mixing that video with the live feeds from dozens of spy cameras installed everywhere on the stage, in instruments, on performers, on Victoria’s hands while she was playing harp, and on the seats among the audience members. Live sound mixing was done by Barclay Crenshaw who later became known as Claude VonStroke. This was presented in 2002 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum in San Francisco and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater.
I never stopped painting, though. I’ve, also, started combining my painted work with digital so it made sense to me to exhibit my analogue and digital work together. But galleries that represented me in San Francisco and Los Angeles were interested only in painting. On the other hand gallery that represented me in Chicago only wanted digital video, etc. So for a long time I wasn’t able to showcase that work. The first show where I combined painting and digital work successfully happened much latter – solo show “Fragments of Unused Time” in Magacin Cultural Center in Belgrade in 2009. That was the only venue to let me mount the show the way I wanted.
You grew up in Belgrade during the ‘50s and ‘60s. How do you remember that period? Did it find its way into your art?
At the time I wasn’t aware how lucky and privileged I was growing up in Belgrade. It truly was a charmed life. Those were my formative years and foundation for who I am today was certainly laid then and there. The day my older cousin sneaked 13 year old me into the Kozara theater to see Godard’s “Le Mépris,” discovery of existentialist literature in my early teens and the first Miles Davis’ concert at Dom Sindikata auditorium were some of the events that had profound and lasting influence on me. Only now I am able to fully appreciate that period of my life and I would agree with Bernard Shaw that youth really is wasted on the young.
Your brother is a film director; your sister is a writer and cultural theorist. How important has your family been in this journey of finding yourself as an artist? Or perhaps did you influence them on their artistic path?
We grew up together, we share the same background, we lived same experiences and we perfectly understand each other. Considering the fact that every Sunday we talk to each other over Skype for hours I would say we influence each other a great deal.
Parking Space 10, 2023
You moved to Paris in the 70s, a vibrant time for the city’s thriving music, film and art scenes. How did your career develop from that point?
Victoria won a French government fellowship to pursue graduate studies in Paris and we decided to move there. After six months we were awarded residences at the Cité Internationale des Arts and that enabled us to spend several years there. I developed my approach to painting in Paris. After five years of study at the Belgrade Academy of Arts, I needed to be on my own with no feed back from anybody in a foreign city completely anonymous and focused on finding out what I wanted to do. I never painted more in my life because I felt what I was doing was just right as all of my previous doubts, frustrations, dilemmas and other hangups were melting away.
Of course, it was Paris, and I’ve learned a lot of other things there. I’ve learned French language. I’ve learned that there was a small movie theater with only few chairs that exclusively showed Marx Brothers movies 365 days a year. That you can have a prime time TV show completely dedicated to discussions about different vintages of wine. And last but not least the crucial role of wine and butter in preparing food.
After that you moved to New York. Did you think that was the place to be?
Yes, I did and I was wrong. But I don’t regret it. I had to live there to realize it wasn’t for me. Art scene in 1980s New York was socially and institutionally very dynamic and complex. To succeed there you would have to build personal relationships with other artists, curators, dealers, collectors even critics and constantly be present in all kind of social activities like parties, show openings, dinners with collectors, be a member of artists’ groups, committees, etc. And you would have to internalize their artistic agendas to become an insider – one of them. And then if you were to succeed, you would have to run your studio like a business, with assistants, shipping department, a receptionist, project manager, etc. Considering my isolationist solitary approach to living and art making it definitely wasn’t a good fit.
California Road Chronicles 79, 2019
Paradoxically some of the happiest moments in my life happened in New York. When I decided that I won’t participate in New York’s art scene, I was left with a lot of time on my hands. When I wasn’t painting I was spending my time contemplating Adolph Menzel’s drawings at the Morgan Library and Museum or staring mesmerized for hours at Turner’s “The Arrival of a Packet-Boat” and Vermeer’s “Officer and Laughing Girl” at Frick Collection. Unfortunately, New York was also my first encounter with the reality of living in a capitalist society, basically if you don’t have money to pay rent and buy food you end up on the street hungry, so that leisurely lifestyle I enjoyed for a while couldn’t last forever.
Victoria was teaching at the NYU music department, from time to time I would sell a painting or two and we had a rent controlled apartment so we were managing to survive but eventually I also had to find work for the first time in my life. Luckily my friend Nenad Bozic was a master printmaker at John Nichols printmakers (now a83 Project) and he invited me to work with him and John on silkscreen and lithography projects for leading Architects at the time. Later, John invited me to teach Visual Representation course with him at the Princeton School of Architecture. Working turned out to be a great experience, forced me to become more socially adjusted which was useful in my later life.
Sky/Ocean/Cargo (Phoenix-Flagstaff 3), 2021
How has your life changed since you moved to California?
I felt like I finally found freedom even though it was just a mirage. San Francisco in 1991 was brimming with excitement for new possibilities and beginnings. Only couple of years after Tim Berners-Lee invented Hypertext Transfer Protocol everybody was trying to figure out how to use it. Although cutting edge computer graphics still depended on million dollar super computers Adobe Photoshop 1.0 for Macintosh was out that year and in 1992 first CoSA After Effects for Mac became available. MIDI technology along with digital mixing and editing was rapidly changing music industry. All kinds of adventurers, developers, artists and weirdos were converging on the city to be part of all of those revolutions. All of that mixed with Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love traditions and strongest liberated LGBT community in the world at the time created a unique culture. After the East Coast ossified institutionalized meritocracy this pioneering spirit felt truly liberating.
Unfortunately, capitalism giveth and capitalism taketh away. Internet gold rush of the mid and late 90s turned frenzied, toxic and oppressive culminating in the big dot com crush in 2000. Luckily big money and power was in consolidation of large internet enterprises and not in the experimental art scene so that scene survived but the freewheeling pioneering spirit of the city was gone.
You’ve lived in San Francisco for many years where you also worked for Jump Ship Studios. How was your collaboration with Miodrag Certic?
As I mentioned before, Miodrag and I were friends forever. I worked with him on his projects for TV Novi Sad while he was still a student at the Belgrade Film Academy in the early seventies. We always understood each other well and worked well together. After the split between San Francisco and Los Angeles Fleet Street pictures operations Miodrag kept and renamed northern half Jump Ship Studios. I worked for Jump Ship until 2007 when it closed. I worked on numerous Miodrag’s projects from TV commercials to documentary and feature films and series as an art director, graphic designer, visual effects artist, motion graphics editor, etc. And we still collaborate whenever right project comes along.
Rear Window View 3, 2021
First solo show in San Francisco’s Contemporary Realists Gallery in 1992 was “California Road Chronicles.” Thirty years later you still paint the “Chronicles.” Where this obsession comes from?
One thing I’ve noticed early on with digital work is that it lives in extremely condensed time – only few months after it was created the work would look dated and irrelevant while a painting I made 20 years ago was as relevant as the painting I finished yesterday. So when I arrived to San Francisco in 1991 to work on all kinds of digital projects, I knew I’d have to keep pace with my painting since that was my most important and relevant work.
One day during a visit to my studio art dealer Michael Hackett then a partner in the Contemporary Realist Gallery really liked one painting of the small red car driving down the Highway One. He mentioned in passing how if I had more paintings like that one it would make a great solo show. That painting became “California Road Chronicles #1.” The series was inspired by my frequent travels between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Being alone in the car on the road created a state of mind that I wanted to capture. Taking literally Jean Baudrillard’s observation that the best visual representation of America would be a film loop of a highway I tried to express it through a series of film/video loops but the results were underwhelming. Painting turned out to be much more suitable medium for what I wanted to express: alienation/solitude while moving through iconic Californian landscapes. Surprisingly cinematic quality of the experience came to life much better in paintings than in an actual cinematic medium – film/video. The piece Michael saw was the first attempt at realizing that idea in painting.
It’s amazing I managed to create enough pieces for a solo show in just six months considering how much other work I had. I convinced myself that if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t be true to my calling. So painting “Chronicles” became a ritual that made me feel like everything is all right with the world and I am staying true to myself as long as I am painting “Chronicles.” You can call it obsession, you can call it compulsion, but it’s something I still need to do to feel that I’m on the right path.
What is more important for art, the idea or the execution? Where does the process begin for you?
Everybody has ideas but without execution there is no art. Wayne Thiebaud had an interesting take on this subject he argued that art is a discourse, a communication of concepts and ideas and that painting process could result in art but doesn’t have to. But then he said that he is only focused on painting and not on art. I believe what he was saying is that painter should focus on painting because if painting is not good, no idea will save it. But, also, there is truth in Clement Greenberg’s claim that if Edward Hopper was a better painter he would be a lesser artist. So there is the paradox – you can be a mediocre painter but nevertheless be a great artist as well as be a fantastic virtuoso painter but no artist at all.
Sky/Ocean/Cargo (Cruise Ship), 2005
In my work I neither spend a lot of time on ideas nor on execution. I have a general idea about what I want to express through my images: time and space when and where nothing is happening, just pure existence in a space. Car on the road without a hint of where it’s coming from or where it’s going to, a person just standing on the beach, an empty parking space. So I would never paint “Washington Crossing the Delaware” or “Saint George Killing the Dragon.” Within that framework I decide on particular image and composition very fast. What I spend a lot of time on is contemplating and imagining how I’m going to execute that image. I’m visualizing and mapping it in detail in my head for days before I start painting. When I start the work I already have everything resolved in my mind, I’ve planned brush strokes I’m going to make, paints I’m going to use, etc. Of course, I would still have to trust my intuition that if something great happens accidentally during a painting session I would recognize it and preserve it. Execution happens fast, I rarely need more than two days to finish a painting. My process for video, film and digital art is very similar.
“Nocturnal cityscapes“, “California Road Chronicles“… all your artworks have cinematic feeling to it. It seems like you’re really thinking through the lens of a film director, figuring out how to lead and guide your audience through imagery and sensation. What is it that you are trying to trigger in your viewers?
Landscape is a genre settled in the tangental meeting point between culture and nature. I try to create pictures that contain both conceptual and sensual sense of place – so not only the sensations of space, light and form but also the cultural symbolisms and social constructs that define the place. So if I try to distill the cultural essence of a California road, it’s inevitable I’ll end up referencing iconography, moods and framings of 100s of films that already defined its cultural essence. Film reference is, also, a communication shortcut for me, viewers of my images are already culturally prepared by film noir atmospherics and road movie moods to have an easy point of entry into my pictures. My latest series “Rear Window Views” already in the title makes direct reference to Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” My intention was to ad an additional layer of meaning (that is not necessarily contained in my images) by invoking the iconic film. Every viewer brings their own cultural background to the work they are observing, and I’m just trying to make a connection easier.
California Road Chronicles 75, 2018
What materials and mediums do you enjoy working with the most?
Love my oil paints all messy and sticky with all the turpentines and varnishes. For support I prefer rigid surfaces like wood or aluminium rather than canvas.
Throughout your work and constant location changes I came to a conclusion that you like being on the road. Where do you feel most inspired and where do you feel most at home?
I find the idea of being on the road very inspiring but I don’t like actually being on the road. There was a lot of reasons why I traveled and moved around but like/love had nothing to do with it. Every time I’ve moved I hoped it was the last time. Good thing is I am a simple soul so wherever you put me I will end up liking the place. I was always the happiest and most at home in the dark rooms with motion graphics/visual effects workstations or in my painting studio.
Title of one of your art series is “Extreme Loafing & Idling“ meditation on emptiness and luminosity. When do you feel most at zen?
When I sit in my studio, close my eyes and smell the turpentine. Also, we have a swimming pool in our backyard, and I like to float on my back in the water looking up at the sky while contemplating my next painting.
Has anyone or anything recently challenged your views on art?
No, not recently. I’m old and stubborn, and I feel like nothing and nobody can challenge my views on art anymore. But on the other hand experience taught me that no human can truly know what will happen next.
Extreme Loafing & Idling 58, 2023
Who are your heroes when it comes to art and/or a movie directing? Whose works do you find the most intriguing?
French poet Paul Valéry was once asked what poetry he likes to read and he famously answered “I don’t read poetry I write poetry.” Well, my position is completely opposite to that. I spend a lot of time looking at other artists’ work. And I can sincerely say that I’ve never seen a painting I didn’t like from the schlockiest ones you can find at cheap motels or garage sales to the masterpieces in the greatest museums of the world. I love to look at them all.
Some of the artists I admire most are: Sesshū Tōyō, Diego Velázquez, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Antoine Watteau, Caspar David Friedrich, J. M. W. Turner, Adolph Menzel, James McNeill Whistler, Ukiyo-e woodblock printmakers, Stepan Kolesnikoff, Edward Hopper, Giorgio Morandi, Wayne Thiebaud
Filmmakers/directors: Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Luc Godard
What would you like to explore in the future?
I don’t have any plans for the future anymore, I’m interested only in continuation of the present.
What are you passionate about besides your work?
I love dogs and NBA basketball.
What is it like to go back to Belgrade these days?
To me Belgrade is the best place on earth. What I enjoy most is crazy density. You step on the street and immediately there is a café, a bakery, a restaurant, an old friend walking down the street and it all happens in first minute. You can walk everywhere. Not even Paris has that. Not to mention that where I live you have to drive for half an hour to have a lunch with somebody. Also, there is a very lively art scene and it looks like regular people are much more involved in it than in the other places I know, or maybe there are no regular people in Belgrade. And when I meet with my old friends it feels like I never left. Now, my friends tell me it’s not that way when you live there and that’s probably true, and maybe that’s the reason I don’t live there. But there is no better place to visit.
What do you consider as your most significant accomplishment to date?
The fact that I was able to live my life and make my living by just making pictures.
Vesna Filipović and Vukota Brajović for Fashionela