New York

Joyce Pensato

Max Protetch

Joyce Pensato’s work serves as a reminder that not all painting with cartoon imagery derives from Pop art. Although Donald, Mickey, and the rest of the Disney crew—along with the occasional interloper from more contemporary cartoons, such as Bart Simpson—form the basis of Pensato’s imagery, her paintings and wall drawings are much more closely related to Abstract Expressionism than to the work of Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol. The black and white enamel Pensato uses was very much Jackson Pollock’s medium of choice in 1951–52, and one cannot help but recall the black and white oil of Franz Kline’s paintings throughout that decade or of Willem de Kooning’s between 1949 and 1950.

None of Pensato’s precursors were high-culture purists; Kline trained as an illustrator, and de Kooning’s Woman always had something of Marilyn Monroe about her. From such roots, blossomed the “handpainted Pop” of circa-1960 Lichtenstein and Warhol—but Pensato’s relation to the art of the ’50s is very different from theirs. Her work is not Pop—not even “handpainted Pop”—because she has no interest in using cartoon imagery to cool down her paintings, to distance herself from the emotionalism and spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, Pensato uses it, in distorted form, to emblematize, to name, however indirectly—as purely abstract imagery perhaps no longer can—the aggressive, anxious psychological quality that is the content of her work.

In her earlier, abstract paintings, Pensato scraped away at the painted surfaces she’d built up, often until she’d gouged the underlying canvas itself to shreds—a gesture related much less to Lucio Fontana’s elegant cuts than it is to Pollock’s aggrieved violence, albeit turned up a notch. Her modus operandi is still as subtractive and indeed destructive as it is additive, but somehow the inclusion of recognizable imagery has enabled Pensato to stop short of attacking the physical underpinning of the paintings. Instead, it is the image itself that is simultaneously revealed and damaged.

“A time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it,” Mark Rothko once said. Forty years later, Pensato accepts the cartoon as a distortion of the human figure, then distorts the distortion only to mutilate it as well. Like the insubstantial yet insistent apparitions in a nightmare that can only be kept at bay, never made to disappear altogether, the malevolently grinning faces loom out of these paintings at an uncertain distance defined mainly by the amount of scraping and rasping they’ve survived. True, something of the goofy humor of the comic strip remains in these paintings, but here it’s the kind of humor that’s hard to laugh at wholeheartedly because you can’t be sure it’s not directed at you. If de Kooning had his Women, Pensato has her men—Donald, Bugs, and Bart.

Barry Schwabsky