Joyce Pensato; 'Joyceland', Lisson Gallery, April-May 2014
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') is 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 life work invited to be sold off, and she’s not even dead yet. Welcome to pre-2000 U.S of A. Or somewhere outside of the popular present anyway. Paint pots and child targeted memorabilia stacked on top of one another containing Sesame Street, Felix, Beavis, Bart, and Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo (you get the idea), providing the 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. There is a preconception that studios must be estranged, disorderly, ideally even grubby. And boy is this one ideal, although I've seen worse, this certainly raises the stakes of obsessive compulsive collector. A compressed volcanic mass of sticky inorganic colours. The solidified lava of ‘Pollockian’ paint drips meets graffiti artist Zevs liquidation of recognisable brands are brought together in an encrusting over 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 contemporary American ephemera is imported. 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. 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 I can’t actually stomach to be around this for too long, because the very stench of enamel, turpentine and dust clogs my lungs. She must get high on this shit. 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 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. But they look fun all the same and it is sadly refreshing to see such reminiscent artistic wrestling. Pensato sure is living the dream. 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.
Bored, I return to the poster assemblages that haphazardly lead back into the ‘studio’. Their initial aesthetic impressions ransacked second-hand shops and thrift stores. Black blood-like paint splats mark ‘Actors Studio’ heroes and caricature figures, of which tellingly, photos of the artist happen to be embedded in. On closer inspection the contents reveal considered and seemingly biographical selections of New York iconoclasms, and it now becomes apparent that even behind these entertaining smiles violence abounds. The slapstick cartoons, the superheroes, a splatted Lincoln photo and Raging bull in the same shot as Travis Bickell. 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 singular expressions of power ontologically reveal themselves as symptoms of social limitation; only to be repackaged and re-exported.
Adjacent to these walls PR photos of Muhammad Ali and Adam West smile alongside minstrels and clowns. And this is the one thing that does confuse and concern me within these real-life caricatures, the presence of black and white typecast imagery. They dance around the walls; posturing topless African American sportsmen neighbour camp Anglophone superheroes. And we all know about Walter Disney. Arguably it could be that this just reflects the main choice of colour in her urgent oeuvre of characterisation, but there’s something else unsaid or overlooked here. 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? I really don’t know, 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.