Joyce Pensato’s paintings provide critics with a seemingly inexhaustible range of subjects for discussion. Her glum, expressionistic renderings of American pop icons—Batman, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the Simpsons—are usually seen as a commentary on the country’s bleak cultural and social situation. Naturally, art critics have had much to say about this: according to Jeffrey Uslip, Pensato’s paintings “materialize the disintegration of America’s social fabric,” while John Yau detects in them indications of many problematic issues, from Disney’s racist depictions of different ethnicities to America’s propensity for “honoring pompous loudmouths, narrow-minded nitwits, and uninformed blowhards.” Such readings of Pensato’s work are inevitable and in most cases, accurate. But they don’t explain why the artist’s painterly criticism of American culture remains relevant today, considering she has persisted with the same imagery and painting techniques for over three decades (in fact, her first use of the Batman motif dates back to the 1970s, when she studied at the New York Studio School). One might expect that in America’s fast-changing cultural landscape, new challenges would arise that require different forms of image-based address. While Pensato’s practice continues in the same vein, it is fair to ask whether her newest work still functions as a form of social critique, and if so, how this effect is achieved. Case in point is Castaway at Petzel gallery, which is worth seeing if only to answer the question above.
On ViewPetzel Gallery
February 19 – March 28, 2015
The exhibition is organized in a blunt but effective way, splitting Pensato’s new body of work into three sections according to medium: painting, drawing, and photography. The photographic prints are found images of American cult figures, which the artist taped to the walls of her studio and then sprinkled with black and white paint. It is a motley group. Among the characters are President Lincoln, Jack Nicholson from “The Shining,” Mohammed Ali, Robert de Niro from “Taxi Driver,” Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, and Mickey Mouse. The prints are shown here for the first time, but the gesture is hardly new: the artist has included similar collages, along with other ephemera, in her previous exhibitions. Some of the individual prints are remarkable, but as a group they fall flat—perhaps because the gesture seems too clean and strategic for Pensato, whose best work is created through an intense struggle with intractable materials. The traces of such struggle are visible in the charcoal and pastel drawings installed in the next room. Here, 10 small pieces, each showing a single cartoon figure, Mickey or Donald, resemble an animation sequence, with the characters prancing, twirling, and skipping around, exuding frantic energy. Their vitality and the illusion of motion are achieved through Pensato’s skillful accumulation of charcoal marks and erasures. The small scale of these drawings in relation to the size of the mark seems to be part of their success: the two larger pieces, “Bart” and “Double Donald,” for example, appear static in comparison.
What pulls the show together is the last gallery, which contains nine large paintings of almost identical size. Depicted are blown-up faces of Pensato’s favorite cartoon characters—Batman, Mickey, Homer, etc—painted in black and white enamel, and in some cases, gold, copper, or silver metallic paint. There is something unsettling and almost awe-inspiring about this somber gallery of giant faces. As is often the case with Pensato, the figures teeter on the edge of abstraction: “The Fizz Buster” (2015) is nothing but a pair of eyes—two pale balloons, floating in the darkness, while “The Other Lenny” (2015) is dominated by a flat black circle located squarely in the center of the canvas, the oddly placed shape rendering the unity of the image strangely unstable. Even though the circle represents the creature’s nose, it seems to stare at the viewer like a single black eye, and indeed, the disturbing effect of the entire gallery may be caused by the intense gaze of these numerous eyes: the narrow slits of Batman, the reeling disks of Castaway Cartman, the large empty orbs of Homer Simpson. With their grotesque features and steady stares, the faces look like giant ceremonial masks, emanating some dark, elemental power.
Pensato is an intuitive artist who does not plan or conceptualize her work, but allows it to happen. Her repetitive use of identical motifs is not an intellectual or aesthetic search for better forms of expression. Rather, her continuous utilization of familiar images seems to be a simple way of streamlining her working process; the image serves as a stimulus, for which the act of painting is like a physical reflex. Pensato can afford to work in this manner: her paintings tap into a source of primary physical and mental energy that reshapes her imagery and gives it new meaning. It is essential that her characters are not real individuals but schematic personalities identified through a limited set of basic traits. Through her impulsive and tortured assault with enamel, these simplistic figures are transformed into psychologically complex, unfamiliar, and somewhat threatening entities. Her juxtaposition of somewhat insipid imagery loaded with numerous cultural references, and powerfully sensual painting technique, is what turns the work into social criticism. Whatever changes take place in American culture, as long as her particular style of expressionism continues to touch us emotionally, we will read into Pensato’s work our most persistent worries and anxieties.