Joyce Pensato, Chicago Eyes, 2016, enamel on linen, 74 × 52".

Joyce Pensato, Chicago Eyes, 2016, enamel on linen, 74 × 52".

Joyce Pensato

Joyce Pensato, Chicago Eyes, 2016, enamel on linen, 74 × 52".

In the early 1990s, Joyce Pensato shifted away from what she calls her “atmospheric” abstract paintings of previous decades to a parallel body of works based on charcoal drawings of cartoons, now transferred to black-and-white enamel paintings. Pensato models her paintings not on comic strips or animated cartoons per se but on their afterlives: Utilizing a composite of sources, she paints cartoon-themed objects from her own collection of flat cutouts originally intended as advertisements, and discarded toys. This stunning exhibition of eight large-scale paintings and seven charcoal drawings, all made in a primarily black-and-white palette, was a continuation of her ongoing work in this vein, with cartoon characters serving less as subject than as image. Also available, although not on view, was the photographic edition The Godmother and Mickey’s: A color photograph of the artist, a cigarette drooping from her mouth, wearing mirrored sunglasses and clutching two paint-spattered stuffed Mickeys, advertised the exhibition while riffing on Pensato’s Sicilian roots (via the classic film that stereotyped the people of that region)—interjecting the discourse on ethnicity and Americanness that runs throughout the artist’s oeuvre.

Pensato’s commitment to figuration cuts across art-historical movements. Invoking the emphatically black-and-white periods of Abstract Expressionists Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, her paintings evidence an autographic directness in the surety of their line work while proposing, intriguingly, “black-and-white” as an independent medium with its own line of vision. Take Chicago Eyes (all works 2016), in which an asymmetrical pair of cartoon eyes sourced from a combination of Felix the Cat and Donald Duck is set against a black background in such a way as to suggest an eye with a black iris (outlined in white) next to a white eyeball, even though black and white enamel are co-present in each form. The punctuated effect of Chicago Eyes is heightened by its installation amid others from a series of paintings populated by eyeballs. The drips in the works are visually driven, rather than acting as ironic representations of abstraction. In Eyes Wide Open, networks of drips appear as if veins. Sing Song Eyes, Runaway Eyes, and All Them Eyes gesture toward the stereotypes embedded in their comic sources while remaining abstracted from narrative context. For all of her cues toward AbEx—stylistically, but more deeply in that movement’s attention toward the relation between feeling and looking—Pensato equally encapsulates Pop art in its most historic sense.

Take the magnificent The Other Mickey. The mouse’s rubbery smile eerily enhances the already exaggerated features of the ubiquitous Disney character, making this image less a logo than a Rorschach test for the viewer’s uneasy projections. The Other Mickey glitters with highlights of metallic gold, allowing the image to “pop.” The adjacent works Gold Duckie and A Scary Mouse featured reflective metallic paints that amplify a motif of mirroring—ushering in a psychedelic world devoid of any original. Cinema scholar Nicholas Sammond has argued that Mickey and his feline counterpart Felix took on aspects of blackface minstrelsy in their performance styles and relationships with their “live” animators, and indeed were “coded as simultaneously black and white.” Harnessing these already overdetermined icons, Pensato locates the aspiration for transformation in animation without tidying up mass culture’s calcifying of racialized boundaries, holding each in view.

The artist’s multivalent use of drawing—including her layering technique, in which one form is partially obscured under another—is evidenced in her smaller charcoal works on paper, many showing traces of color pastel erased (or “beat[en] up”) into the paper surface. Baba Booey Mickey references an inside joke from the Howard Stern talk radio show, in which Stern’s executive producer misremembered the name of the cartoon burro Baba Looey, a caricature of a Mexican American. Little Lupe Donald, its subject contorted as if in the middle of a dance, similarly calls forth an already-layered source, “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” a 1963 hit by the white soul duo the Righteous Brothers. Stop the Clock, a frenzied rendition of Daisy Duck’s attempts to subvert Fordist labor as played out in 1940s-era animations, has appeared in different scales in previous years; such shifts are a notable aspect of Pensato’s world making.

On view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago concurrently with this show was the group survey “Riot Grrrls,” in which Pensato’s Silver Batman II, 2012, is featured. The collective messiness and intellectual rigor of that exhibition echoes that of Pensato’s practice. What comes through so palpably, both in The Godmother and in Silver Batman II, is Pensato’s command over a distinct language created out of composite forms of representation. As Pensato puts it, she is “in charge of what I look at and what I make.”

Solveig Nelson