What do you get when you cross the contemporary derangement of American politics, various cartoon heroes (Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck), the spectres of abstract expressionism and that dystopian goon Donald Trump? The huge new paintings in Joyce Pensato’s show, ‘FORGETTABOUT IT’, kid! Funny and sinister, they also provide the weirdest Mickeys’ since Keith Haring drew him, wide-eyed and with a UFO scanning his brain, in 1983. Aged 76, the Brooklynite has found a scuzzy strategy for capturing the madness of right now through pictures that look like broadcasts from a malfunctioning TV. Paint drools down canvas as noxiously as acid rain on chrome and any hints of Looney Tunes zaniness come spiked with something totally ghostly. Robert De Niro’s appearance on the wallpaper upstairs as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976; who remains hellishly relevant not only as a spree killer but also as the veteran of a hopeless war) is just one example of the American meltdown that Pensato chronicles in her work. The timeliness of such dystopian vibes is undeniable but Pensato’s paintings are also full of goofy delight: she makes mischief with her brush, just like Donald Duck in ‘Wet Paint’ (1946).
The duck is the doomed hero of Four Donalds 1–4 (all works 2017) – his black feathers melting to goo as he eyeballs the hole where his heart should be, rocking back and forth from one picture to another. (A greedy beast lunching between slapstick crises: the paintings are a hot allegory for the woes of the other Donald.) The backdrop is pure gold, like the walls of a Bond villain’s lair or the toilet bowls on Trump’s private jet before he squelched onto Air Force One. Homer Simpson is feeling the effects of industrial decline according to Pensato’s Homer in the Hood. The mugshot-like portrait in smog grey shows – to quote his boss’s assistant, Smithers – the ‘carbon blob from Sector 7G’ as a blue-collar casualty: wrecked from a lifetime of knocking back Duff beer and ingesting plutonium at the nuclear power plant.
Any fancy sucker can bloviate about politics, satire or the subversive use of cartoons and totally ignore how Pensato melts different modes and eras of painting together to make her funky works. She creates tableaux in which abstract expressionism feeds, zombie-like, off pop art’s Day-Glo carcass and combines the formal economy of the graffiti tag with heavy, sludge-caked surfaces. She’s loyal to the gnarly textures of her home turf, too, like other New York painters such as Franz Kline or Christopher Wool, whose abstractions of city life evoke industrial pollutants or scorched tyres recording car crashes. Blank space eats away at wherever the Dark Knight was in The Erased Batman, repeating Robert Rauschenberg’s prankster blanking of a drawing by Willem de Kooning. Somewhere in the void there’s a wisecrack about urban decay, too – the painting might double as a disintegrating subway poster: ‘Make Gotham Great Again!’
Everybody’s mimicking Batman and trying to quit the scene somehow – from Travis in Taxi Driver, aiming his gun at the mirror, to the two beastie boys in Landscape Mickey, who are en route to shenanigans elsewhere. Donald Duck returns as a gangster in the five parts of Let’s Blow This Joint, eyes bug and plumage spiky: the duck’s been at the goofballs or just dropped a stick of dynamite in his shorts. The ‘joint’ could be the body or mind as much as any boring environment because, by the third picture, Donald’s is degenerating from ‘duck’ to frenzied scrawl: it looks like so much fun.
Main image: Joyce Pensato, Landscape Mickey, 2017, enamel and metallic paint on linen, 203 x 325 x 4 cm. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London; photograph: Jack Hems