Austin’s newest art gallery has made an impressive introduction. Nestled on the east side of town, McLennon Pen Co. is carving out its own niche in the city’s art scene with diversified programming. Its founder, Jill McLennon, moved to Austin in December 2022 after serving a 17-year stint in New York City, where she worked for Sotheby’s in the Impressionist and Modern Art Department, as assistant to Andrea Rosen at her gallery’s Chelsea location, and as Director at Galerie Eva Presenhuber. Emerging from the height of the pandemic, McLennon found herself yearning for a change, which led her to Austin.
“I thought I would always live [in New York], but something felt different after Covid. I was getting older, and I was suddenly really unhappy there,” McLennon explains. “I had just turned 35 and I wanted a change, so I figured it was now or never to open my own space. I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m trying to do it very authentically, very idealistically.”
McLennon Pen Co.’s inaugural show, Just Friends, opened on March 2 and featured nine artists whom McLennon befriended while still living in New York: Korakrit Arunanondschai, Orlando Estrada, Hadi Falapishi, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Ebecho Muslimova, Borna Sammak, Ryan Trecartin, Chloe Wise, and Jordan Wolfson. The exhibition occupied the first floor of the gallery’s building, with paintings and mixed media works installed inside and Trecartin’s video installation in the garage. According to McLennon, Just Friends brought fruition to her developing interests over the last 20 years. Three of the featured artists ventured down from New York City to see the show, which allowed McLennon to show them all that Austin has to offer. After Just Friends closed on April 29, McLennon thought about how she could best situate the space within Austin’s gallery circuit and also introduce herself to the community.
Eager to put down roots in the city’s art scene, McLennon decided to meet local artists by hosting a large group exhibition. She was inspired by a free-for-all show hosted by O’Flaherty’s in New York (a gallery run by Jamian Juliano-Villani, one of the artists featured in Just Friends), which was a huge success and had a turnout so large that the police had to shut down the street in SoHo. It also caught the attention of the New York Times.
McLennon Pen Co.’s Open Call Show for Austin Artists also fulfilled a tall order: exhibiting 155 Austin artists under one roof, with work filling every room, every wall, and every nook and cranny of the pop-up location — a house, which contributed to the DIY sentiment. There was no submission process; McLennon simply requested that interested artists email her to schedule an installation time. This approach maintained the show’s inclusivity while allowing McLennon a more intimate meeting with each artist.
“It felt like I did 155 studio visits in a three-day period. So many people asked, ‘How can I help you?’ which really shocked me,” McLennon recalls, recognizing the Texan hospitality. “Everyone was really understanding of flexibility, and there were really amazing interactions between artists while helping each other install, like climbing up on a ladder. Lots of artists would turn to whoever was on the right or left of them and ask ‘Does this look good here?’ It was really lovely.”
Though eclectic by nature, there was fluidity within the show, guided by stylistic traces of how the artists intuited their works’ placement based on others’. As I meandered through during my visit, I quickly recognized work by Manik Raj Nakra, Alexis Hunter, Chantal Lesley, Caroline Pinney, and Wes Thompson — to name just a few artists — and McLennon readily provided identification for all artists upon request. As I inquired about other works, McLennon referred to a large poster that displayed installation photos of all the pieces on one side and each artist’s signature on the other. The poster, which was available for purchase to compensate for expenses, doubled as an index for the show as well as an artifact of it. McLennon fancied the idea of encapsulating Open Call Show for Austin Artists with a collection of the participants’ signatures, like a yearbook; a time capsule of Austin artists in 2023 that people could look back on. As McLennon entertained the idea of continuing the Open Call Show for Austin Artists annually, I wondered out loud about the correlation between the artists’ signatures and the gallery’s name: McLennon Pen Co. She filled me in.
“My grandfather on my mom’s side had a luxury pen shop in Chicago that he opened in 1934 — McLennon Pen Co.,” McLennon tells me. “He passed away long before I was around, so he’s a myth to me because I’ve only heard incredible stories about him, but I’ve always dreamed about going back in time to see his pen shop. He was the eldest son of a very poor Irish Catholic family, and he started selling pens in the back of a grocery store when he was 14, then he built it into his business. He was just this pillar for our family. Being Irish Catholic he definitely experienced xenophobia, so he was adamantly against any kind of racism and discrimination. One of the strengths in the history of the pen shop is that he helped Pentel — a Japanese pen company that had been trying to set up an office in Skokie, IL, near Chicago — sell their new invention: the first mechanical pencil. There was a year where he sold a million dollars worth of mechanical pencils for them — in the 60s!”
Eventually, her grandfather’s McLennon Pen Co. moved into a wholesale business under a new name. As McLennon planned to open her own gallery space, she inquired about using the company’s previous name, to which her family gave their blessing. And thus, McLennon Pen Co. continues its lineage, rebirthed as a contemporary art gallery in Austin, Texas. McLennon projects that there will be about four to six shows a year, featuring a variety of mediums, including paintings, sculptures, videos, and installations from emerging and internationally established artists.
Currently, McLennon Pen Co. is presenting Tastes of Home, a solo show by Brooklyn-based painter, Audrey Rodriguez. Rodriguez was raised in Port Isabel, Texas, and channels influence from her Honduran and Mexican heritage in the oil paintings, graphite drawings, and sculpture that will be on display at McLennon Pen Co. Drawing stylistic influence from Dutch Golden Age and Spanish Baroque still lives, Rodriguez renders everyday scenes focused on Latin American street food vendors in New York City. Her delicate crafting of the vendors and their products, polished by her training at the New York Academy of Art, elevates the scene to spotlight their entrepreneurial character, and raises questions about working conditions for farm laborers and the mechanics of fruit manufacturing. The opening reception for Tastes of Home was on June 16th; the show will be on view through July 28.
“The goal is to showcase contemporary art that is exciting and says something beautiful, something poignant of our time, and to position the work historically,” McLennon manifests. “I would like to bring more international contemporary artists to Austin and showcase ideas that light me up. I am certainly still calibrating the gallery identity, though maybe that is something that perpetually evolves out of a necessity to keep relevant.”