The Debt of Kitsch: Undermining reification through the work of Joyce Pensato and Sun Yitian

Sun Yitian. Super Hero. 158 x 205 cm each panel, 326 x 205 cm together. Acrylic on canvas. 2020.

By ANDREW PAUL WOOLBRIGHT, July 2020

I.

In East Williamsburg, the studio of Joyce Pensato is undergoing the monumental task of moving; years of work, letters, and belongings are being transferred to its new location where it will be recreated and permanently stored- recreating Pensato’s studio as she left it when she passed. It is a herculean effort completely fitting for the over-sized life of Pensato, organized by Elizabeth Ferry, Pensato’s long-time assistant and friend who is now the executor of Pensato’s estate. Artist friends are in and out of the space, helping with the move.

In Hong Kong, the show Whatchu Looking At by the 28 year old Chinese artist Sun Yitian is coming to a close at Mine Project. For the exhibition, Yitian has produced a tremendous amount of work, large scale acrylic diptychs of soft-focus landscapes and massive plastic toy figurines. Similar to Bavarian hummels, they would be cute and materially seductive in their reflective, curvilinear forms, perfectly gradated and smooth, if not for their scale and context. The uncanny landscapes behind them seem perversely theatrical, staging the cute figurines (that Yitian refers to as surrogates) in a world without sound, air, or movement. You can almost feel the air go out of the room behind you as you look at them.  

I am drawn to a specific painting- Super Hero. On the left panel of the diptych is a balloon of Batman and on the right is an abstract spill of color, the same colors used in the painting of the left panel. A chaotic rupture of a visual field, it reminds me of the hanging carcass of Rembrant’s ox. 

Joyce Pensato, Silver Batman II, 2012, Enamel on linen, 72 x 64 inches. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. © Joyce Pensato. Courtesy of Petzel, New York.

II.

In 1991, Sun Yitian was born and, back in Brooklyn, Joyce Pensato was working towards her first solo show with a gallery in the East Village. She had been making work for the show for two years and just weeks before it was supposed to be installed, the gallerist told her he didn’t feel that she was ready. Joyce had been already traveling back and forth between Brooklyn and Vetheuil, France to see Joan Mitchell, her mentor. Her experience there had started to dissuade her of the idea that she was a French painter, a colorist in the lineage of Impressionism and now the second wave AbEx that Mitchell had developed. Pensato had started to make severe charcoal drawings of American characters, beginning with Mickey Mouse, and leading up to her solo show, she was still exploring both bodies of work. The show now cancelled, the two lines of work felt more untenable and she fully embraced Mickey. 

Futian Market in Yiwu

III. 

What does it mean- the application of expressionism to pop icons like Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson, and Batman? Was it cynical to hitch the language of post-war abstract painting to the wagon of kitsch? Was Pensato poking at ubiquity as a whole; drawing comparisons between the totalizing aesthetics of art and mainstream culture? 

Pensato had a late career; spending her 20s and 30s on the outside looking in. Maybe the expressionist turn could be interpreted as a middle finger to the aesthetic regimes conferred by the institutions of the in crowd (“Your Pollocks are no more precious than The Simpsons”). But there is joy in her paintings, not bitterness. 

Yitian travels to Yiwu to find the source material for her paintings. Situated in Southern China, Yiwu is a massive marketplace, a place where all of the plastic toys and output from the mainland factories are sent before being exported all over the world. Called Commodity City or the New Silk Road by the West, it is a collection of organized worlds of items. Rooms of beaded necklaces, dolls, shoes, and hats are laid out like a physical internet. Every item in every color, rows and rows of every possible variation.  

It is here in Commodity City that Yitian searches for the cute plastic toys and balloons that she will depict as looming monuments.  

Joyce Pensato, One Eye Mickey, 2007, Charcoal on paper, 20 x 27.9 inches. Collection of Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Joyce Pensato. Courtesy of Petzel, New York.

IV. 

Joyce and Yitian’s projects are romantic ones- defiant acts of anti-reification and each, in their own way, a refusal of globalization and the kitsch that it inspires. Joyce was transferring the energy of her body  through an athletic act into the flattening exported symbols of American culture. If, as Paul McCarthy says “hygiene is the religion of fascism,” Pensato tried to intervene in the sterile avatars of our culture, that contain so many meanings to each individual that they are, in essence, meaningless. The drips and marks, the activation and swing of the brushstrokes, seem like efforts to exorcise the human soul from the impossibly reflective flatness of Mickey. Investing Kenny with the soul of Munch is a war of attrition against the impossible cultural expense of empire.  

The subject matter of her work is consistent in its invisibility. To say you like Batman or Mickey Mouse, is a statement of taste that reveals nothing, similar to saying that your favorite band is the Beatles. Joyce worked in an America that as an empire, seemed like it would never fade- a “post-history” America that felt self-determining and hegemonic. Every empire builds monuments to their own power from the stolen resources of war and conquest- Joyce seemed to understand that Disney World is our Coliseum and that the Batman trilogy is our Colossus of Rhodes, that South Park and The Simpsons are our clay and marble with which we are to construct our cathedrals. It is then a pure act of magic then that she is able to conjure the affectual pathos of the sublime from Batman and return the human hand to these broken cultural signifiers through the still significant act of painting.  

And this defiance continues in the work of Sun Yitian, who expresses this continued project as the weight of its production has shifted to the factories of China. Debt and labor are the experiences of Americana. As Joselit points out in his latest book Heritage and Debt:

“This power, neoliberalism, operated by radically opening world markets and, in a complementary action, introducing financial speculation and privatization into areas hitherto considered the responsibility of sovereign governments (such as prisons, utilities, and other infrastructural systems). In place of formal imperialism, there arose the financial capacity for creditors located in the developed world (whether NGOs like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, or commercial banks headquartered in Western capitals) to govern through debt.”

There is a debt of empire passed on through the low aesthetics and legacy of its kitsch. While the commodities and circulation of high culture is made by artists, artisans, and craftsman (or at least is presented as such), the manufacture of kitsch becomes the job of sweat shops and labor in the eastern hemisphere or Latin America. The cuter, the more simplified, the more majority accepted the valence of the image or the object is- the more likely it is made at the cost of human life and debt- the more invisible its work force and creation.

Where Pensato infuses tv characters with awe and mystery, Yitian replaces this force with the seductive and deadly energy of her rendering. They are confrontational, still like a predator ready to make its move, embodied and disembodied in the landscapes that airlessly sense the attack. 

Both of these artists have chosen to examine the impossible flatness that comes from the culture of empire through its oracular regime of commodity and kitsch. Pensato tried to wrestle the mysterious back from the empty symbols of Americana- of Bart and Homer and Batman. Yitian is connecting it to its new presence within geopolitics- the sweatshops in Southern China that risk health and life to turn out “cute.” Where Pensato wanted to find the spectral in the symbol, and tried to connect the athletic body of abstract expressionist painting to broken cultural signifiers, Yitian is searching for the violence in the kitsch of empire, as American empire shifts, the weight of its cultural production  placed on the invisible workers of the world. WM

Andrew Paul Woolbright

Andrew Paul Woolbright is an artist, writer, professor, and gallerist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He is an MFA graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design in painting and has exhibited with the Ada Gallery, Nancy Margolis, and Coherent Brussels. His Shrinebeast series, which deals with sexual kafka and love, has been reviewed in TimeOut New York, Two Coats of Paint, Artviewer, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Reader and is currently in the collection of the RISD Museum.  In March 2017, Woolbright founded the gallery Super Dutchess at 53 Orchard, an artist run gallery on the lower east side in New York. He has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and he currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz.  

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