• Review

  • May 7th, 2014 05.07.2014

    Joyceland: Lisson Gallery


    In Milk and Melancholy, Kenneth Hayes identifies the milk splash as a recurring motif in photographic art from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s, and asserts that this moment of lactic disturbance that reappeared “with the regularity of a trauma… was instrumental in overcoming the hegemony of Modernist painting and, at the same time, commemorated its loss.”1 Though Hayes develops his “milk-splash discourse” specifically within the bounds of conceptual photography, the notion of suddenly displaced liquid as a locus of rupture and regression has broader resonance. From painting to performance art, milk, paint, or other liquids continue to be drafted as substitutes for bodily fluids or a more ethereal notion of spiritual essence. The arresting effect of the spilling motion captures and frustrates the eruption of energy; the already-spilled substance is exhausted of its potential.

    In Joyce Pensato’s Joyceland, currently on view at Lisson Gallery in London, it is gloss enamel paint that is spilled. Not just spilled: sloshed, dribbled, dripped, and splattered, though not enough to threaten Lisson’s clean-cut aura. Spillage is both a strategy and a byproduct for Pensato, who likes bold gestures that leave violent marks – posters of Muhammad Ali and Robert de Niro in Raging Bull, fists up and spattered with black paint, are transplanted directly from her studio walls. The splash gesture – itself a caricature of movement – links Pensato’s expressionist technique with her cartoon subject matter.

    Installation view of Joyce Pensato: Joyceland, Lisson Gallery, London, 26 March–10 May 2014. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London.

    Joyceland follows the same format as all Pensato’s solo shows since 2009: a large-scale wall drawing accompanies several works on canvas and paper, in addition to substantial chunks of content from the artist’s studio, transported and assembled into scruffy displays. The canvases and works on paper are the backbone of Pensato’s practice. Though less showy than the studio outpouring or wall drawing, they have a tendency to linger as haunting afterimages. Pensato’s vocabulary co-opts Abstract Expressionism with overtones of graffiti and doodling. Action painting meets animator’s draughtsmanship as Pensato alternates between assertive gesture, and the multiple erasures that are born out of reworking her lines. Meanwhile, her content is repertoire Pop: cartoon characters ranging from animations of the 1930s(Mickey Mouse; Donald Duck) to more recent icons of satirical and black humour (Homer Simpson; the kids from South Park) and Pensato’s favorite anti-hero, Batman.

    Installation view of Joyce Pensato: Joyceland, Lisson Gallery, London, 26 March–10 May 2014. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London.

    Batman has returned periodically throughout Pensato’s career. Silver Batman, the iteration on view at Lisson, is particularly impressive: a gargantuan mural of the caped crusader’s mask dominates the main gallery space, almost obliterating the wall with a jungle of vertical drips and gory collateral spatter. Congealed; syrupy; splattered; dripped – it is hard to stem the tide of adjectives. The emblem of the mask is a call to arms, a territorial marking, at once a totem and a phantasmal apparition.

    Given Pensato’s keen theatrical sense, Silver Batman is a logical extension of her works on canvas: portraits of cartoon characters whose faces swell to fill the surface, absorbing the gaze. By definition, caricatures are both simplifications and exaggerations. Pensato further reduces these already reduced characters, effacing features until often only eyes and mouth remain, and then overworks whatever is left – re-inscribing black over white and white over black until the image is composed of an inseparable mixture of mark and erasure. Her use of gloss enamel, a medium favoured by action painters for its industrial connotations and viscosity, gives her surfaces an optical liquidity. Cartoon eyeballs gleam with the hypnotic intensity of headlights from an oncoming train; one is reminded of Philip Brophy’s notion of ocular excess.

    Installation view of Joyce Pensato: Joyceland, Lisson Gallery, London, 26 March–10 May 2014. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London.

    While Pensato’s paintings may appear hasty, they require time. Enamel suits bursts of energy interspersed with periods of delay, to allow drying time between coats. Similar pacing characterises many of the animated cartoons she takes as inspiration. Pensato’s drawings, featuring toons truncated by streaky erasures of arms and legs, also link her process with the dynamics of her source material: the phantom limbs of her subjects are reminiscent of the cartoon motion blurs that signify speed, shock or confusion.

    Arrayed in messy piles throughout the gallery and crowding the entire final room are stained throwsheets, stools crusted with thick stalactites of black enamel, quarter-filled tins of paint (reserves of the artist’s vital fluids), and soaked and hardened brushes. The materials are jumbled together with the artist’s sprawling collection of reference materials: books, toys, posters, and photographs. Highlights of the melee include plush Mickey toys with their red pants pulled down; a fleet of Elmo dolls; Batman masks in all shapes and sizes; three large stuffed dogs; a smattering of Felix the Cats; a Kenny piñata; a decrepit organ-grinding monkey with a malicious stare; and a giant rabbit reclining beneath tables laden with decades’ worth of anthropomorphic merchandise.

    This is Pagan Pop at its purest: the cult of the cartoon and the cult of the artist are both alive and kicking. Disney’s sanitised, child-friendly animals aren’t so cute after a stint in Joyceland.

    Joyce Pensato: Joyceland at Lisson Gallery runs through May 10, 2014.

    1. Kenneth Hayes, Milk and Melancholy, MIT Press, Cambridge and Prefix Press, Toronto, 2008, p22