A Blizzard of Paint and Objects: Joyce Pensato Makes Pop Culture Her Own

Feb. 10, 2021 in artcritical

Joyce Pensato at Petzel Gallery

Installation shot of the exhibition under review showing Joyce Pensato, Daisy, 2012, to the right. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York

Joyce Pensato’s 2012 exhibition, Batman Returns, although her third at Petzel Gallery, was greeted by the New York art world with astonishment.  At its core was a large-scale installation titled Fuggetabout It. The gallery was transformed into a simulacrum of Pensato’s work space: toys, posters, photographs, empty paint cans, old furniture, and used paint brushes cohabited with her explosive paintings of pop-culture icons. After more than 30 years in her Williamsburg studio, Pensato had lost a legal battle with her landlord and was forced to vacate. She had literally ripped out pieces of her studio walls and installed them in a pristine white-box gallery. It was funny, alarming, and bold.

Petzel Gallery, which manages the artist’s estate (she died in 2019) has mounted a brilliant exhibition that partially recreates the 2012 installation while adding drawings and paintings not in the original show that amplify the artist’s singular vision.

Fuggetabout It (Redux) situates studio detritus seductively in the entry way while placing a huge drawing of a child’s toy, Daisy(2012), in the first gallery, as if to welcome visitors with arms extended. Vigorous gestures in charcoal and pastel swirl around the figure, both defining it and bursting out of its sides. There is palpable delight in the artist’s mark making as layer upon layer of charcoal is repeatedly applied, erased, and applied again, revealing the drawing’s rich and tactile history. In some places, Pensato erased so aggressively that she went right through the paper. The energy is electric. Both the artist and her subjects seem very much in charge. Though she grins a seemingly friendly smile, the monumental roly-poly Daisy could rip you apart.

Daisy is joined in the first room by Underground Homer and Smackdown Lisa, two characters from The Simpsons that were perennial Pensato subjects. The trio is a canny introduction to the rest of the exhibition. The next room houses much of the reconfigured Fuggetabout It installation, a mad tangle of objects on tables, chairs, the floor—all covered in drips and blobs of Pensato’s paint of choice, black and white commercial grade enamel. It takes a moment to readjust your focus as you are drawn into this compact universe. Stuffed animals, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Muhammad Ali, furniture, a fake palm tree, and dozens upon dozens of paint cans and brushes, milk crates, and rags. It’s a whirlwind of paint and objects, both fun and startling. I watched gallery visitors take a step back at the entryway of the room, alarmed that they had, perhaps stumbled into a hoarder’s den. Installed so that visitors can walk around, peer under and over the tableaux, it’s a maximalist’s dream come true

Underground Homer, 2019, to the right. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York. Installation view.

As we absorb this past view of Pensato’s work, it is important to consider how far she traveled. As a student at the New York Studio School in the 1970s, she aspired to be an Abstract Expressionist. According to her own account and those of her peers, she struggled to find her voice and artistic acceptance. Her ambition undiminished, she turned to pop culture for her iconography, but without abandoning her AbEx roots. The extraordinary energy of her gestural painting and drawing relates directly to the work of Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Franz Kline. But while the grit and passion remain expressionist, the iconography is unabashedly pop.

Despite the power and skill of Pensato’s drawing, her use of pop culture sources was seen by some as a gimmick. But a concurrent exhibition at the uptown Petzel Gallery centered solely on the artist’s deep dive into Batman and Spiderman show the extent to which her disciplined and focused work deconstructs and reconfigures these all-familiar superheroes to take full artistic ownership of them.

Joyce Pensato, What’s Next, 2015. Enamel on linen, Set of five paintings, 48 x 40 inches each. Courtesy of the Estate of Joyce Pensato and Petzel Gallery, New York

The third room at the Chelsea exhibition is where the brilliance of both her career and the installation of this show are most fully realized. A clean white room is hung with large portraits of the eyes—and only the eyes—of Pensato’s subjects. In stark black and white, these giant paintings walk the line between representation and abstraction. Informed by Pensato’s drawings and the installation, we know that these are the eyes of Homer and Lisa Simpson, Batman, South Park’s Eric Cartman and other such figures. But at the same time, they read as pure explorations of form, texture and material. Pensato has distilled recognizable traits to their essence. They are convincing portraits and galvanizing abstraction, exemplary as both.

Installation shot of Joyce Pensato: Fuggetabout It (Redux) at Petzel Gallery, New York

Fuggetabout It (Redux)
January 15 to February 27, 2021
456 West 18th Street, between 9th and 10th avenues
New York City, petzel.com

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