Joyce Pensato draws in charcoal and paints in enamel — dense, clinging soot and viscous liquid. For years her palette has been black, white and silver, though color is beginning to make an appearance in her recent paintings, mostly as splatters and drips. The drawing process is one of making marks, rubbing them out and making more marks, with line being the essential form. In the paintings, the line is made of enamel that initially appears to have been applied quickly, though its varying densities and its field of drips and splatters makes it clear that it wasn’t done in a single shot. In both drawing and painting Pensato is committed to finding the linear form that captures her subject matter, be it Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Batman, Groucho Marx, Felix the Cat, toy clowns or not-so-cuddly monkeys.
Based on a mask, Pensato’s oily, black enamel Groucho consists of bushy eyebrows, glasses frame and thick moustache — his signature features. For all the humor and goofiness that comes across in these large in-your face paintings, there is something alarming about them. Her humorous, sad sack caricatures barely contain a suppressed rage. Their exaggerated features speak directly to the fractured American psyche, especially when it comes to race, ethnicity, and notions of beauty. (Someone ought to do a two-person show of Pensato’s portraits and those of the African-American painter Peter Williams, who has done paintings of Ronald Macdonald and of himself as a child wearing Mickey Mouse ears).
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Pensato was born in Brooklyn more than seventy years ago to a Sicilian immigrant father and an Italian-American mother. In the mid 1970s, when she was in her 30s, she enrolled in the New York Studio School, where one of her instructors was Mercedes Matter, who founded the school in 1964. Since its opening, the New York Studio School has been run like an atelier in which the art making is entirely hands-on, with particular attention paid to drawing. In this regard, the New York Studio School is the opposite of many current art schools, which emphasize conceptual art and post-studio practices, and relegate drawing, if it is taught at all, to the illustration department.
For years, including the time that Pensato was at the Studio School, a number of the instructors taught drawing in a way that recalled Giacometti’s anxiety-ridden search for the mark, brimming with feeling, as well as advocated that the students draw in paint. Pensato is one of the few artists who didn’t find it necessary to reject this education in order to gain her authority. If anything, she made it into something all her own, which is a strong indication of how willful and single-minded she is.
Titled Batman Returns, Pensato’s recent exhibition alludes to those years at the New York Studio School. It was while she was there that she first did a drawing that was based on a flat, life-sized, cardboard cutout of Batman. In a program that stressed drawing based on direct observation, especially of classical subject matter (the nude and the still-life), Pensato figured out how to adhere to this very traditional foundation, but find her own material. She didn’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to be radical, something that she shares with the New York poet of everyday observation, James Schuyler. As she tells it, [she] “just fell in love with Batman … it was [because of] the ears.”
Outsized ears, eyes, mouth, lips and the texture of hair (or fur) — these are not only distinguishing characteristics of cartoon characters — from Daffy Duck and Mickey Mouse to Homer Simpson and Elmo — but they are also used as ethnic signifiers in a culture obsessed with whiteness, the perfect body, and photogenic embodiments of ideal beauty. She understands the destructive, dehumanizing pressure of everyday life, where what matters above all is belonging — the world that Andy Warhol, Richard Prince and Elizabeth Peyton celebrate in their work. But it is Pensato, not them, who recognizes what Charles Baudelaire meant when he characterized the desire for ideal beauty as the “despotic perfecting process” in his defining essay, “The Painter of Modern Life.” Pensato embodies Baudelaire’s belief that the true artist “is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’, at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive.”
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In a theatrical exhibition, which is part installation, Pensato included a lot of the stuff that had accumulated in her unheated, paint-splattered, East Williamsburg studio, from which she was evicted after more than thirty years. It was not the first time that Pensato displayed her studio. In 1997, after she had her first shows in Paris in 1994, she was one of ten artists who worked publicly at Exit Art’s Broadway space for the exhibition, La Tradicion: Performing Painting. Her studio was by far the messiest and most cluttered.
In this recent iteration there were tattered, paint-splattered stuffed animals, dolls, figurines, masks, plastic crates, stools and ephemera of all kinds. Everything was spattered and smudged. On the wall she had affixed rows and rows of photographs and reproductions, from Marlon Brando in The Godfather to faded color polaroids that seemed to have come from African-American family albums. I saw a color reproduction of a ceramic figurine of Aunt Jemima, a photograph of a black man with his lips whited-out (shades of Ellen Gallagher), and what I took to be yearbook photographs of black adolescent girls, mixed with reproductions of Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois and a bewigged Cindy Sherman.
Looking at the photographs and reproductions that once covered the walls of her Olive Street studio, as well as the paintings leering back at the viewer, I thought of Hollywood’s disturbing relationship to race and racial stereotyping, particularly Walt Disney’s long history of racist depictions of different ethnicities, including Italians in Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Louise Brook’s unsettling description of Humphrey Bogart’s attempts to remake himself from Humphrey to Bogey. One way that Bogart remade himself was to purse his “beautiful lips” and rub his thumb over them – a gesture Jean-Paul Belmondo paid homage to in Breathless (1960).
According to Brooks, the reason Bogart did this was because “America, in the Twenties, was exclusively Western in its ideas of beauty and vulgar people made fun of Humphrey’s’‘nigger lips.’”
In more recent times, two examples come to mind. In Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance (1993), a dying Dennis Hopper tells gangster Christopher Walken, “Sicilians were spawned by niggers.” One can also recall the heated arguments stirred up by Spike Lee’s depictions of Italians in Do the Right Thing (1989).
Have we traveled all that far from the era that Brooks describes? Doesn’t Donald Trump, a birther, have a reality show on NBC? We always seem intent on honoring pompous loudmouths, narrow-minded nitwits and uninformed blowhards. Americans love to gorge themselves on human ugliness. We can’t seem to get enough of it. This is what Pensato’s works touch upon.
The great thing about Pensato’s drawings and paintings is that they are neither overtly political nor boringly literal. Emphasized by her looping, linear vocabulary, the facial contortions of Homer Simpson and Daffy Duck are funny and endearing. Wearing their hearts and souls on their faces, it is apparent that they are undergoing seismic upheavals of shock, horror, and rage. It is hard for us not to smile. Life has not been kind to these lowly creatures. Clearly, the artist has immense empathy for her bedraggled subjects, which she finds in flea markets and on eBay. They have seen better days. They may have once even been loved.
Of course, it might be more comforting to look at Pensato’s paintings purely in terms of postwar art history. They are a unique synthesis of Abstract Expressionist pyrotechnics and Pop Art’s love of kitsch and the vernacular. Out of this unlikely marriage she has made something all her own. Or you could think about the history of blackface and minstrel shows, and how such use of exaggeration has never really vanished from America. If you reject these two readings, you could focus on the almost religious fervor embedded in Pensato’s deep empathy for suffering schlubs — they are cartoon Jobs. Drawing and painting are her way of caressing the faces of those America physically shuns, her way of making them visible. The fact is that Pensato lives in a world of her own making, It is hardly a simple one.
Joyce Pensato’s Batman Returns continues at Friedrich Petzel Gallery (537 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until February 25.