Joyce Pensato: I Killed Kenny
Santa Monica Museum of Art
June 1 to September 28, 2013
By Megan Abrahams
The impact of Joyce Pensato’s work becomes that much more dramatic upon seeing the artist in person. Her petite presence belies both the scale and the immense physicality of her dynamic paintings -- particularly the ones she rendered on the vast walls of the Santa Monica Museum of Art in the few days leading up to the opening of this exhibition, where she materialized her concept with a palpable degree of radiating energy. The images drip with paint, as well as varied shades of humor -- playful, ironic, satirical and dark. Pensato pokes fun -- not in a mean-spirited way -- in her re-envisioning of a rogues’ gallery of iconic cartoon characters and other personalities from history and popular culture.
The artist began extrapolating from the world of cartoons as early as the 1970s. Seeking inspiration outside her studies at the New York Studio School, which emphasized the still life genre, she drew on her childhood love of comic books and television for subject matter. Since then, she has made it her practice to probe the dark hidden layers beneath the veneer of entities like Batman, Felix the Cat, members of the Simpson family, South Park (thus the allusion to Kenny in the show’s title), Mickey Mouse, Olive Oyl, and Donald and Daisy Duck.
Her studio is peopled with a collection of toys, which she references like live models for her drawing and painting. One of these toys -- a paint-spattered Donald Duck perched on a stack of plastic crates -- makes an appearance here as part of the exhibit. The duck and crates are placed next to a somewhat disconcerting new series of equally paint-splattered collages, in which Pensato has combined photographs of Abraham Lincoln with images of American celebrities. This newer multi-media work represents a shift -- almost to the point of a disconnect -- from the artist’s more fully realized paintings.
Among the first of the paintings encountered upon entering the gallery is South Park Stan, (2007). The painting is rich with thick coats of enamel, combining to create textured layers, with part of the under-process slickly shining through. In another painting from around the same time, Mr. Moto Mickey (2006), Mickey Mouse almost appears as an apparition, looming ghostlike in rough black outline through thick overlapping coats of white enamel.
In most of her work, Pensato has confined herself to a limited monochromatic palette -- white, black and silver enamel -- with the striking exception of more recent pieces, such as a vivid color portrayal of Batman in, 2012 Batman (2012). Her images are fresh, raw and alive, imbued with a characteristic gestural style. Drips, smudges and erasures give the work a sense of immediacy and movement. The artist’s repertoire consists of sweeping brushstrokes, which manage to articulate simple shapes with surprising power. The identities of most of her characters are demarcated by only a few, key, identifying lines -- in the case of Batman, the not-so-subtle clues of the pointed ears and eye-holes of his bat hood. A more sedate version, Silver Batman II (2012) is a grittier portrait of the superhero in subdued tones of silver and black. The earlier Batman has a more sinister look than his later more colorful counterpart, partly because the eyes are shaped like a human’s and have a shadowy and somewhat menacing gaze.
The largest of the three monumental site-specific works created for this survey is fittingly entitled, Welcome to My Party (2013). The image portrays a female cartoon figure with arms outstretched, as if ready to embrace us. She wears a huge smile and a bow on her head. Surrounding spurts of black paint seem to amplify the subject’s apparent excitement. Another of the wall paintings, Blinkies (2013), is, in essence, composed of two conjoined white orbs on a black background, suggesting eyes. Enamel drips cascade down the wall. The shiny patina of the industrial enamel bounces off the surface with a reflected glow. Given the lack of context, the image is strong, haunting and amusing at the same time.
An action painter, in the tradition of Pollock, she has acknowledged the paintings of de Kooning and the drawings of Giacometti as influences on her signature style. While her world is populated with overt figurative references, she defines it within the lexicon of the abstract expressionist genre. Whether because of these self-imposed stylistic constraints or in spite of them, Pensato’s images are infused with intense expression and emotion.
The exhibit also includes a number of charcoal drawings, organically stemming from the same gestural approach. In Santa Monica Mickey (2013) Pensato has rendered the giant disembodied head of a grinning Mickey on two huge pieces of paper stapled to the wall. Glints of pastel offer subtle color highlights. The artist erased and reworked Mickey’s features with such intensity, that areas of the paper are worn through, leaving the wall visible through a hole in the subject’s eye. An artist friend of Pensato’s nicknamed her The Eraser because of her propensity for erasing sections of her work, but the erasures themselves add interest, as through their traces she reveals a tantalizing hint into her process.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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