A Conversation: Joyce Pensato

It seems Joyce Pensato needs no introduction. Her legendary personality and energetic paintings speak for themselves. In fact they scream for themselves. Much has been said in terms of what her absorption of popular culture may reflect. Updated Abstract Expressionism mutated by Warhol and technology? An aggressive reconciliation of our visually saturated world? Ominous portraits signifying a collapsing sense of the role of the image? Sure, but Pensato is quick to sidestep any prolonged reading of the work and simply acknowledge her love for all things Pop. In Pensato there is a sincere engagement with the characters and people that create our unified lexicon of references. This raw sincerity begs us to never turn away from her work as she transforms photographs and cartoon characters into forceful action.  Pensato has also been known to show remnants of her studio within exhibitions. This residue which Pensato generously shares can be read as feverish and obsessive while strangely twisting her overwhelming energy into visually formidable objects. Mania made tangible. Pensato is chasing her mind through painting, the medium itself acting as the catalyst and gateway to bring all things into her loving gaze so she can squeeze tight, tighter, tighter until all is consumed by her unrelenting embrace. On the occasion of her current exhibition at the Fort Worth Modern, which presents a body of new photographs and large scale piece, we sat surrounded by Philip Guston paintings and had a conversation. - Arthur Peña, Dallas Contributor


Texas Batman, 2015, Enamel on canvas. 100 x 160 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.


What’s Next 1-5, 2015, Enamel on canvas. 48 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.

Arthur Peña: I wanted to have some time with you in this Guston room. I understand you had some interactions with him.

Joyce Pensato: When I was at New York Studio School I had a few critiques with him. The first time my class had a crit with him, everyone put up their work before me and everyone had a good review except for me. He said that it looked I was “having a party.” That was the worst thing you could tell a student at that time.

AP: Did that mean that you weren’t taking your work seriously?

JP: That’s how I took it.

AP: That’s interesting because Guston’s work feels so playful.

JP: Oh, it is playful. I was a beginner and it he was probably right.

AP: Guston had such lofty ideals about painting and it seems that he worked very slowly at times.  Was that something you were reacting against?

JP: He worked very slowly. I’m taking the ways of Abstract Expressionism in the way I apply paint but I don’t censor pop culture from my work. I’m combining both.


L to R: Dylan and Lincoln, 2015, C-print. Framed: 41 x 27 11/16 in. Paul, 2015, C-print. Framed: 41 x 27 11/16 in. Here’s Johnny, 2015, C-print. Framed: 41 x 27 11/16 in. The Original, 2015, C-print. Framed: 34 3/8 x 51 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.

AP: The photos in the show are from your studio which you had been in for 30 years. What is the studio to you?

JP: It becomes you. It’s your environment. It’s your world. I’ve had time to build it up. When I moved I thought it looked so empty. I was really embedded in that place. Because you’re collecting and you grow and as you change new stuff goes on top of the old stuff.

AP: Are you in the studio every day?

JP: Yes, I might just be sitting there. I just realized it takes me a while to get going. Sometimes I can go in there and just get to work. But I have to sit there and be in the space before doing something. It’s all timing and a lot of feeling of what you’re connecting to. I had a 90” x 86” blank canvas and I had to wait until it felt right. The shape of the canvas can dictate that.

AP: So the canvas is the prompt?

JP: The size and the shape will let me know. If I’m really into something I will try and make it work. If it doesn’t work I get rid of it. Only recently did I start to feel in command of what I’m doing. Drawings I could always handle but only in the last 15-16 years have I felt that way about painting.

AP: What happened to cause that?

JP: There were a couple of major changes. Around 2000 I was in Paris a few months. I was thinking about moving there. I had a show that did well and I had support. It seemed easier. Soon after I had a show in Brussels but it didn’t go well. Then 9/11 happened and I didn’t want to be anywhere but New York. Also, a close friend looked at a drawing I was making that had gotten water damage which caused some dripping and sort of destroyed it. They were interested in it. I thought I should indulge in that part of me. I am messy and like to have my hands full of it. Why don’t I stop trying to keep the work clean and if I’m really going to do drips then I really need to do drips. There was a time when I was cleaning the work, wiping away drips. Imagine that! 


L to R: Double Lincoln, 2015, C-print. Framed: 34 5/16 x 51 in. Christopher and Bob, 2015, C-print. Framed: 27 11/16 x 41 in. Travis, 2015, C-print. Framed: 27 11/16 x 41 in. Marilyn, 2015, C-print. Framed: 41 x 27 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.

AP: The images in your photographs reminded me of having posters in your room of bands or heart throbs.

JP: Yes, they are exactly like posters. I like to have images around the paintings. Whatever I like I put up. The splashes started happening on them and I would step back and I thought that they were looking good. And then I was doing a project with my good friend Christopher Wool that had nothing in particular to do with our work and he said “I like these splashed photos, we should do a book together.” He gave me a bunch of his photographs to splash on. I put them down around the studio and if they got splashed on, great! I didn’t rush it. It’s like cooking, you don’t get it till it’s ready. I love looking for and finding photos and I started looking for headshots. I was looking at a calendar of famous people and there was this photo of Lincoln and he had such a great look of power.

AP: There is an image of Travis Bickle in one of the pieces. Taxi Driver attempted to capture a specific era and spirit of NYC in the 70’s. You’ve been in NYC so long and I couldn’t help but connect that image with how you see New York.


Travis, 2015, C-print. Framed: 27 11/16 x 41 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.

JP: De Niro is my hero. I thought he was a wacky guy and for real with the roles he played. I thought he must really be crazy. I actually got to meet him a couple of years ago, now he’s an old guy, not quite the same Barbie. But he presents the 70’s and 80’s to me so his image is one of an icon. Similar to Cassius Clay.

AP: The images have so many references because they are from our culture. Someone like Batman, who is a vigilante….

JP: I see him as strength and real power. I tried to do Spider-Man but he looked like a ballerina! Batman could take care of you.

AP: What about Eric Cartman? He is legitimately insane and a psychopath.

JP: (Laughing) He’s not a good boy, he’s a bad boy. He has an edge.


L to R: Raging Bull, 2015, C-print. Framed: 34 3/8 x 51 in. Cassius Clay, 2015, C-print. Framed: 34 3/8 x 51 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.

AP: Like your work.

JP: Yes but I think it has to do with maturity and a confidence in your inner self and what you’re doing. You know for yourself when it’s working.

AP: What happens in the studio for you to be able to push yourself and have the energy to go after the painting you want to make?

JP: It happens when you’re one with your body and lose yourself in what you do. You’re so focused, just hanging out with the dog, by yourself and not seeing friends or anything.

AP: To bring that back around to Guston and trying to be one and open to the work, he talked about this sense that he felt that there was another hand in the process of painting.

JP: Somewhere that takes over and it’s such a great space to be in. If the dog has to go out, it’s just gonna have to wait. If you’re in it it’s hard to break away. It takes a build up to get there. But it’s all systems go. Sometimes when I’m just taking a break I can’t help but think that I’m wasting so much time sitting in this fucking chair. I need to get rid of all my comfortable chairs. I have a little apartment I go to at night to sleep but the studio, it’s me. That’s where I am. That’s where you’ll find me.


Joyce Pensato, courtesy of the author.

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FOCUS: Joyce Pensato runs through January 31, 2016 at The Modern in Fort Worth, TX. Pensato’s upcoming 2016 solo exhibitions include shows at Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, IL and Kunstraum Innsbruck, Austria. Pensato is represented by Petzel Gallery, NY.

Arthur Peña is a painter and director of roving music venue and cassette tape label Vice Palace. His current solo the wants and needs of a fearful life runs through January 9, 2016 at the Dallas Latino Cultural Center. His work will be included in the inaugural exhibition Layering at SITE 131 in Dallas, TX opening December 2015.

All images courtesy of The Modern, Fort Worth unless stated.  

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