The studio was in flux when I stopped by as preparations were being made to transport most of the new paintings to the Friedrich Petzel gallery for Pensato’s show, Batman Returns, which opened on January 12 and comes down on the 25th of February. Many of the paintings had not been titled yet, and last minute changes were being made to one or two, Pensato being on the fence about some of the others. A drawing of Mickey Mouse hung half-finished. I asked her if a silver and black composition beaming from the wall by the window was one of the seven dwarves: “Yes...Dopey!” she responded, the inflection of her voice being more of a cheerily impish insult to my poor observation skills than an answer to my question. “I’ll call it that,” she added, noting it down on a scrap of paper.
It’s hard to believe that Pensato moved into this studio in June of 2011. She was in her last studio, also in Bushwick, since 1979. But the splattered paint on the floor of the new place is already a quarter inch thick in patches, and scraps of enamel-covered newspaper clung to the bottom of my sneakers as I padded around the place, taking snaps of the numerous dramatic vignettes that populate the studio. There are dozens of plush critters piled everywhere. Most of the paint covered Elmos (probably the most common character), Donalds, Barts, and Mickeys are strewn about on the folding tables, haphazardly in piles or seeping out of milk crates. Some of the fuzzy monsters seem placed, sitting on boxes, or as if poised to resume activity when my back was turned, leaning up against paint buckets or standing with arms outstretched next to a just finished painting.
All this might be misconstrued as cute; it is not. Mixed in with strains of the Ramones, “Sedated” was the plaintive, high-pitched, and supposed-to-be comforting voice of an animatronic Elmo squeaking “Uh-oh…uh-oh…uh-oh” as Pensato’s American spaniel, Charlie, shook the black-and-white speckled red fuzz ball the same way he would savage a rabbit or badger. The studio is a lot like The Cave of Le Chauvet, seen in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the floor littered with the petrified bones of unfortunate animals that had become trapped in the cavern, and the walls illuminated and incised with running elk and the heads of lions. There is no explanation for the drawn animals of Le Chauvet, but it seems clear that they were rendered by the artists with a mixture of reverence and fear—and tenderness as well. Created with much of the same mixed emotions, the silver and black faces that peer out from the walls of the studio on Metropolitan Avenue in Bushwick—soft and strange anthropomorphic entities—comfort the viewer with their benevolent smiles, but just as quickly upset us with their staring googily eyes and vaguely human yet profoundly alien expressions.
The paintings are very much drawings. The brushstroke is employed to generate a line, a splattered streaky chimeric organism that drips and pools as it coalesces into one of a repertoire of familiar imaginary beings. Pensato follows a process of adjustment, negotiating between a pairing of colors: black and white, black and silver, or more recently, a multitude of colors acting as a chorus in counterpoint to the single voice of the line. The paintings oscillate between being portraits—of Dopey, Homer Simpson, or Batman—and abstractions that focus on the materiality of the paint.
The proclivities of the oil-based enamels are turned on themselves in order to produce a messy and knobbled surface that frustrates the desire for a clean and shiny, wet-seeming finish. Layer upon layer of paint slowly refines the image into recognizeability; Olive Oyl’s profile or a pair of eyes plucked from the face of Eric Cartman. The paint dries from the surface inwards though, and with each successive pass of the brush, torn bits of paint skin drag across the surface and situate themselves like some painterly acne, over the expanse of the canvas. Like Dubuffet, Pensato strives against the shortcomings of the concept of craft, refusing to make her paintings pretty and instead drawing the spectator into her images with the ugliness and imperfection of her surface. Instead of a placid lake, she intrigues us with a drippy and churning witch’s brew. She effectively uses the gritty materiality of media possible with a learned and conscious misuse of a varietal of paint created for the clean banality of shop signs.
Situating Pensato is almost as hard as not getting one’s shoes sticky in her studio. Though her work draws on cartoons and comics, she’s not a pop artist and is neither buying into the comic aesthetic nor presenting comic images ironically or iconically as cultural signifiers (as Lichtenstein and Oldenberg did). The fact is that she has stuck primarily with cartoon characters and children’s icons: Mickeys, Felixes, and Homers (and added in Kyles and Cartmans over the years). It seems as though she keeps a time-share condo in Toontown; that these characters are friends, or at least important entities in her life to whom she devotes a substantial amount of psychic effort. The paintings double both as portraits and as shrines to minor deities and share with Ray Johnson a creepy love of cute as vaguely threatening. Pensato’s artistic allegiance is primarily to the paint and, like other artists fascinated with the gooey, gloppy, and glossy propensities of enamels—Marilyn Minter, Gary Hume, or Christopher Wool come to mind—Pensato has found a resonant medium and method with which to render a set of characters that simultaneously cheer and haunt.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.