Abstract expressionism and animation may seemingly exist in two parallel artistic universes, but in the work of New York-based artist Joyce Pensato, they co-mingle to amusing — and occasionally unnerving — effect.
The subject of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s “Focus” exhibition, which opens November 21, Pensato is known for capturing such iconic characters as Donald Duck, Felix the Cat, Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse, and Kyle and Stan from South Park in the viscous drip style the artist calls “controlled chaos.” Merging comics and abstraction in her paintings since the mid-1970s, Pensato presciently anticipated the marriage of high and low culture that is so prevalent in the 21st century.
“Felix, Mickey, Batman — they all have qualities and shape to them that I like to explore again and again,” says Pensato of her pieces, which have been described as “tragicomic.” “I am taking American Pop iconography and turning it on its head to reveal, perhaps, a darker side to these smiling faces.”
Alison Hearst, the Modern’s assistant curator and curator of Pensato’s show, agrees. “I think using these steadfast characters to express how society is now demonstrates clearly how times have changed. So by transforming these seemingly benign, happy-go-lucky characters into darker, more introspective portraits, her work hones in on the darker side of the human condition.”
Six months in the making, the Focus show features five new paintings and 13 photo collages, the latter a relatively new body of work for the artist. As the artist surrounds herself with toys, props, movie posters, and celebrity promo posters for inspiration, her photo collage offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into her enamel-splatted studio, giving the viewer insight into her creative process and her engagement with American historical and cultural icons.
One of the biggest hits of the exhibition is sure to be “Texas Batman,” Pensato’s newest and largest painting, measuring 100 inches tall by 160 inches wide. An image of Batman’s mask (an emblem she has returned to again and again throughout her career), “Texas Batman” gets a feminist spin as she “captures” the superhero’s power by revealing his disguise. Pensato says she found it “very fitting to debut my largest painting to date in the great state of Texas.”
As the American myth and the Texas myth merge in a palette of black, white, and silver, there’s one key thing to keep in mind while viewing these works: They are meant to be enjoyed, despite their occasional anxious appearance.
“There’s a lot of humor in her work,” Hearst says. “That’s something I hope visitors get from the exhibition.”
“Focus: Joyce Pensato,” on view through January 31, is just one reason to visit the museum over the holidays. A great destination for family in from out of town, the Modern continues to host the blockbuster Kehinde Wiley exhibition through January 10.
Join a gallery tour, see a film, enjoy lunch on the terrace, find gifts in the shop, become a member — spend time with your favorite works of art at the Modern. Programs are made possible by donations from you and the community. Thank you for your support.