Are artist's studios havens for autonomous expression, even when their productions become commodity machines? On this account, it appears the best of both worlds is achievable.
Here the entire studio contents belonging to Joyce Pensato (appropriately called 'Joyceland') are brought over from her native New York and meticulously reassembled in the end room of this London gallery. An archive and subsequent simulation of a long life's work; invited to be sold off -and somewhat uniquely- all while the artist is still alive. Welcome to pre-2000 U.S of A. Or seemingly somewhere outside of the popular present. Paint pots and child targeted memorabilia stacked on top of one another contain Sesame Street, Felix, Beavis, Bart, and Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo, providing a subject matter for her canvases and drenched in paint during the process. On approach this doesn’t feel so much as placed, but rather emerged, rising out from the sterility of civilised gallery life.
A compressed volcanic mass of sticky inorganic colours. The solidified lava of ‘Pollockian’ paint drips reminiscent of graffiti artist Zevs liquidation of recognisable brands, encrusts every smiling cartoon character, toy, table and teddy. All the way down to a manky old linoleum carpet where a line of Elmos appear, like reddened dirty pyroclasts.
A sinister adult subversion of children’s ephemera is both inevitable and reflective of art, significantly it seems whenever the stamp of American export is highlighted. The dark undercurrents of a Mike Kelley teddy or the totemic profanity of a Paul McCarthy provide obvious connections. Indeed, cartoons are a popular thread in bridging or renegotiating that thinking gap between unaccessible art and dumbed-down culture and although I have witnessed grubbier art studios, this certainly wins on the front of obsessive compulsive collector. Instead, what we witness here is the artist’s entire assets and processes of production subverted into greater adult values. A fool-proof Midas touch; in which the self valorised subject matter is inseparable and cyclical to its created commodities. But lingering here is restrained, because the very stench of enamel, turpentine and dust overwhelms within this (albeit intoxicating) artist’s world. Perhaps there is a degree of danger after all...
The causational paintings born from these subjects are placed just outside, a sensible curatorial move. Portraits such as ‘Golden Batman’ are reduced to Franz Klein-esque outlines, overlaid in monochrome and metallic colour. But the truly heroic is in the passionate mark-making gestures, almost to the point of its own masculine caricature. An abstract expressionism dramatised, where every line has a runny nose effect and flicks of black appear like UV damage to the faces of Eric Cartman and co. As such, these representations never aim to escape assigned recognition and its bolshy simplicity refutes meditation. Cartoon eyes are soulless when you look closely and these ones are voids. But they look fun all the same and it is sadly refreshing to see such reminiscent artistic wrestling, typically only found behind studio doors where it is deemed more acceptable, expected even. Although there are some excellent frenzied drawings of Donald Duck dotted around and a ragged ‘Marge in Hell’ charcoal rendering is ferociously articulated. Nevertheless, it is the preserved studio which impassions my imagination and walking past enormous silver streaks of another ‘Batman’ especially graffitied in the main gallery wall only magnifies my desensitisation (actually, it would have been great if just Marge's hair reached this entire wall instead.
A little restless, I decide to return to 'Joyceland' and pay more attention to the posters that were hung up.
The presence of black and white typecast imagery of old-school entertainers dance around the walls; as posturing topless black American sportsmen neighbour camp Anglophone superheroes. I feel confused by the intent, if any. Arguably, it could be that this just reflects the main choice of 'colour' in her urgent oeuvre of characterisation, but there exists something understated or overlooked. If the enclosed studio is reflective of its inhabitant then it is also the by-product of its surrounding cultural environment, inseparable from its labour. Here is an archive of singular expressions of power, revealing themselves as symptoms of social limitation; only to be repackaged and re-exported.
I ask a man in the gallery his opinion; a Dubliner touring as many galleries as he can. He tells me he doesn't think it’s meant to mean a lot, but points towards a moth ridden leprechaun and laughs out loud. Is there something farcical in us all being reflected from these commodities? We are not directly answered here, and I’ve given up worrying because the paint fumes have made me nauseous. I look at one of my own icons in the eyes, a distressed Homer Simpson and he tells me not to worry. That in the fictional world you can express yourself however you like, because no one really gets hurt and it’s all just a bit of fun.