Los Angeles

Joyce Pensato, Santa Monica Mickey, 2013, charcoal and pastel on paper, 9' 1“ x 13' 2”.

Joyce Pensato, Santa Monica Mickey, 2013, charcoal and pastel on paper, 9' 1“ x 13' 2”.

Joyce Pensato

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Joyce Pensato, Santa Monica Mickey, 2013, charcoal and pastel on paper, 9' 1“ x 13' 2”.

Joyce Pensato’s alliances with her cartoon subjects—icons such as Mickey, Batman, Felix the Cat, and Homer Simpson—recall the different stages we experience in our real-life relations with friends and romantic partners. Early on, there can be the awkwardness of becoming acquainted, or the obsession that accompanies a new crush. Then, as familiarity sets in, one learns every variation of the other person’s moods and expressions. In the best cases, we never grow bored with our closest companions, and they somehow continue to surprise us.

In “I KILLED KENNY,” Pensato’s one-person show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (curated by Jeffrey Uslip and traveling to the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in January), one could track the artist’s evolving relationships with certain characters. One of the earliest Mickeys in the exhibition, the drawing On the Run, 1994, shows Disney’s mascot midstride, as if he were trying to escape from the paper. Rendered in charcoal, the small drawing is worn from vigorous marks and erasures. If that early Mickey appears shy and skittish, Untitled (Mickey), 1995, exudes an almost sinister self-assurance. Outlined in thick, runny brushstrokes of shiny white and black enamel and emerging from under passages of peeling paint and dirty drips, the character’s vacant eyes and messy grin evoke Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” face in The Shining. Move forward in time, and the energetically sketched Santa Monica Mickey, 2013—a huge drawing that filled almost an entire wall—presents our round-eared friend smiling and eager to please. It’s as if both the artist and her subject can’t believe the success they’re enjoying after so many years.

For a show billed in its gallery brochure as “the first comprehensive museum survey” of Pensato’s work, “I KILLED KENNY” was frustratingly short on examples from her first three decades as an artist: Of the thirty-six works on view, two-thirds were made in the past ten years, and not a single work from the 1980s was included. One got a small taste of what a more rigorous retrospective might have offered via four drawings from 1976 and 1977—awkward and experimental exercises featuring Batman in combination with other objects. Dating to Pensato’s student days at the New York Studio School, they demonstrate her indebtedness to a classical still-life tradition. Just as Cézanne (that master of still life) painted the same apples, oranges, and ceramic pitchers over and over again, so has Pensato kept at the same subjects, and in many cases worked from the same objects, with unwavering dedication. Considering she has been making art steadily since the mid-1970s, one is left wondering about the periods not represented.

Some might criticize Pensato’s execution as overly facile—her technique is virtuosic enough that she could easily rest on her natural skills. But what keeps her work interesting is her ongoing formal and conceptual experimentation. In the paint-splattered photographs of Muhammad Ali in her recent collage work, for example, Pensato explores the affinities between a painter’s strokes and the movements of a boxer: Both rely on forceful and assertive gestures. That confidence of gesture is crucial to her latest paintings, in which characters are sometimes reduced to just one or two defining attributes. Golden Mustache, 2013, gives us Groucho Marx as nothing more than eyebrows and a mustache flanking a pair of glasses, while Looking Out Felix, 2010, presents the cartoon cat as two huge eyes filling the canvas. The most striking of these single-feature paintings is 2012 Batman. Here, the white outline of the superhero’s mask overlies a rain shower of paint drips in black, red, yellow, blue, and turquoise. Moving beyond the playful caricatures of glum Donald Ducks, bewildered Homers, and mischievous Cheshire cats elsewhere in the gallery, this Batman is exceedingly dark—and surprisingly beautiful.

Jennifer King