Joyce Pensato is best known for her stark, large-scale paintings of cartoon characters and in particular for her series of Batman paintings that depict the cape crusader’s iconic mask using splashy skeins of black and white paint. The overt connection to action painting and Abstract Expressionism is evident in her dramatic style. The last several shows of her work included large assemblage installations of the reference material that Pensato tends to accumulate in her studio, including plush animals, photographs, and a range of licensed toys from chairs to figurines. In contrast, Castaway, her current solo exhibition at Petzel Gallery, is a clean, relatively reductive installation of large-scale paintings, drawings, and photo collages. While this is the cleanest context I have seen her work in, it is also the most helpful in providing a full context in which to understand the work.
The first thing one notices about the paintings on display is the immediacy with which they are painted. There is a dark, brooding feeling of aggression that pulls itself across the surfaces of the 9 large paintings that decorate Pretzel’s main gallery space. The sense of storm and stress that pervades this room is almost physically present. Though each of the bizarre cartoons, leering manically from their various positions on the wall, has a clear sense of personality, the material sense of paint overwhelms the figurative depictions beneath. Pensato’s “Castaway Mickey” grins eerily at visitors, emanating a totally unsettling but unavoidably charismatic vibe. While it might be easy to start to imagine the fucked-up inner thoughts of this would-be character, the violent, almost performative gusto with which this painting was made tends to wrench you out of that sort of reverie. It is this tension between the subject matter and materiality that lends these works their indecipherable, mysterious quality.
Pensato’s works on paper place the outsized paintings into a broader context. While the paintings seem to push themselves outward off the edges of the canvas, the charcoal works on paper sit neatly within their confines. Each of these works is pleasantly overworked in a manner that recalls de Kooning’s Clamdigger series. The scrubby, sketched forms, however, are much more easily deciphered in the charcoal works than in the paintings. The figures are drawn with greater fidelity to their original subject matter and possess a forthright, almost maquette-ish quality. All this is to say that they look much more like cartoons. Pensato’s “Duck Soup 8” reads like an old-fashioned Mickey Mouse story board, as an array of sketched hands mime a windmill of movement.
In the side gallery, a number of photographs hang on the wall. They illustrate in poignant terms the crux of Pensato’s process: these photos are taped to her studio walls as source material for her paintings. The photos sit atop and underneath heavy skeins of white, black, and gold paint. Of particular note is a photograph of Jack Nicholson from his famous “here’s Johnny” moment in The Shining and a photograph of Lincoln, both of which are splashed with waves of paint. While these might be carefully curated vignettes, they highlight the importance of the artist’s source material. They serve as a stand-in for the artist’s studio detritus. Her extensive collection of pop cultural source material — stuffed animals, chairs, toys — serves as a collection of totems. The images are not original depictions of the characters from the comics or cartoons but rather pictures of pictures.
In her photo clippings of boxers, celebrities, and cartoons I couldn’t help but think of Adolph Gottlieb in the late 1940s or the other New York school artists like Mark Tobey, who explored the symbols of other civilizations. While those artists at midcentury were searching for a non-western approach, Pensato seems to fixate on those cultural symbols that have drifted out over the airwaves in the last 60 or so years and into the far reaches of the globe. While the abstract expressionists strove to find a universal language, Pensato seems to have found one that already exists. All the mania, drama, and stress of these paintings originate from their play upon the mutations of these popular icons that inevitably occurs with this level of ubiquity. Just as her large-scale paintings of Mickey Mouse, Batman, and Homer are mirrored in the source material photographs in the next room, they are similarly mirrored by the various lunch boxes, posters, and other objects that permeate our lives. I can’t help but smile; these superheroes and cartoons are indeed mutants not in the most obvious sense but in their cultural variety.
Joyce Pensato: Castaway continues at Petzel Gallery (456 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 28.