New York In spring 2011, Joyce Pensato lost a real-estate battle over her studio in Williamsburg and had to vacate the premises. She had been there for more than 30 years. Inside, apart from a number of inprocess monumental canvases and large drawings—works on view in her recent exhibition at Petzel—was a massive accumulation of found images and objects bespattered with paint. Photographs of the studio taken before she moved out—most shot by her, and collected in her new artist’s book, The Eraser—show the place as a species of Gesamtkunstwerk in which distinctions between finished artwork and inspirational matter were hazy at best. Squint, and you are hard-pressed to see the studio as anything other than a single, enormous Pensato painting. But she had an idea, and, assisted by her dealer, she dismantled and preserved not only the objects in her studio but entire sections of walls, complete with miscellaneous, tacked-on items. These contents, along with the more deliberate artworks, appeared in her show in various numbered arrangements titled “Fuggetaboutit,” really messing with the whiteness of the cube and extending the artist’s accomplishments from painting and drawing to mixed-medium installation.
The show was called “Batman Returns.” Batman is one of the dozen or so morally ambiguous characters Pensato has revisited periodically since the early 1970s in her expressionistic paintings and drawings, but the title’s double message of resurrection and threat seemed embedded not only in works depicting the mask of the Caped Crusader but in the studio debris as well. There’s a fine line between creation and destruction, humor and violence, in Pensato’s work anyway. Here, within stacks of broken chairs and tables, dried-up cans of paint and ruined brushes, found head shots, fan photos and other miscellaneous things—none untouched by paint—poor little battery-run Tickle Me Elmo dolls, their red fur matted, lurched around spasmodically, bleating out garbled messages. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In the Batman paintings, bold black strokes constituting brows and eyeholes sweep across the canvas from one edge to the other like an ominous black raptor, rhythmically echoed by the arc of the head and two ear points above. Batman is not the only player in the drawings and paintings on view (all 2011 or ’12): pres- ent as well were Donald, Homer, Bart, Olive Oyl and some horrible clowns, in an astonishing variety of mood and effect. Particularly impressive are four 90-by-72-inch paintings that were hung side by side on one wall, a rogues’ gallery of visages in Pensato’s signature style of muscular drawing and Ab-Ex drips in a reduced palette of black, white and silver. Especially unnerving among these was Silver Clown, a grinning mask of crusty metallic paint in which one eye feels slightly recessed, creating the impression that there really is a dubious someone back there peering out.
In a tease, Pensato included 2012 Batman, 80 inches square, with white eyeholes and ears and a veritable screen of colored drips—her first polychrome, yet oddly somber. It makes a soul avid for more, as for the sequel to some ripping thriller.
Photo: View of Joyce Pensato’s installation Fuggetaboutit III, 2012, photographs, stuffed animals, plastic crates and mixed mediums; at Friedrich Petzel.