Meet Joyce Pensato And Her Expressionist Remixes of Cartoon Icons

Joyce Pensato (b. 1941, Brooklyn NY) has been painting cartoon characters for years. She takes icons of cartoon art—Felix the Cat, Donald Duck, Batman, Cartman from South Park—and renders them in smudgy charcoal and pastel or runny enamel paint. She works mostly in black and white, occasionally introducing silver and gold for contrast. Though her work seems grounded more in graffiti art, she actually draws from fine art history, from the likes of the Abstract Expressionists, and Philip Guston, who was also influenced by comics.

Pensato’s cartoon icons become doubly iconic—images of images, removed another step from their origin in a way that Andy Warhol might have approved of. Pensato’s mice and ducks are not mere copies though, but rather, her own expression, both innocent and disturbingly sinister, more subtly deviant than any deviantART image. Likenesses vary; in one work Mickey Mouse might be potrayed in a childlike fashion, and in another resemble the creepy monkey-in-a-mouse-suit from Babes in Toyland (1934). She works over her charcoal until the changes show as ghostly palimpsests; drips of enamel form scrims down her paintings.

“Punk Homer,” 2012, enamel on linen

Pensato’s work, which is in the collection of the Musem of Modern Art, has received extensive recognition in the art world including the Guggenheim Fellowship (1996), the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award (1997), and the Robert de Niro, Sr. Prize (2013). Her first museum survey, cheekily entitled “I Killed Kenny” (yet another animation reference), debuted last year at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and ended its second run this month at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Given the chance to take on the white box that is the classic form of a contemporary art gallery, she brings chaos to it, a chaos she controls. That chaos is well represented in “Joyceland,” currently at London’s Lisson Gallery, where she has recreated her studio’s messy glory. In one room paint-spattered toys, furniture and studio equipment cover the floor, while photographs for inspiration are tacked on the walls. Much of the gallery is more traditional, cold white space with works hanging or painted directly on the walls. Homer Simpson gazes blankly outward; Batman’s mask fills one wall.

” Joyceland in London 1981-2014,” studio accumulation from 1981 to present day.

Below you can see Pensato discussing the exhibition:

If you want further information, Pensato’s webite is not very useful, however, art critic Tyler Green has interviewed Pensato on his Modern Art Notes podcast last year. “Joyceland” runs at the Lisson Gallery (27 Bell Street, London) through May 10. The pieces from the show can be seen on the gallery website.


  • Jamie Iles

    I really enjoyed watching the video and seeing her process. Very inspiring!

  • Caty Ml

    The Donalds are fun… I find much more extravagant and touchy all of the physical stuff (studio included) though.

  • tjarmstrong

    Art school freshmen – poor draftsmanship, off-model, “learn to draw.”
    Seventy year old – abstract expressionist in the Moma.

    Not a defamatory statement, just food for thought.

  • George_Cliff

    This passes for art? Really!?!

    • D

      Well what are you the art police? You do realize that many individuals say the exact same things about the cartoons and animations you and I revere so much.

      I am not going to say that your opinion is wrong, in fact many people seem to reciprocate your view but I am going to say that such a narrow minded and cliched statement makes you sound like one of those art snobs who only views art in a singular fashion.

      The great thing about art and animation/cartooning is that there is a plethora of ways in which to express oneself visually. There does not need to be one set style, that would be boring, and the skills used to create the art are as subjective as the art itself.

      I am not going to tell you that what Joyce is doing is brilliant or all that creative, in fact I think if anything her art does lack creativity, it is basically a fine arts approach to fan art and visual mulching, but narrow statements such as yours trivializes the process and skills behind her work and I don’t think thats really cool.

      You are entitled to bash art as much as you are entitled to champion it but blunt statements such as these come across as the type of close minded ignorance that held back the art world for years, even tjarmstrong gave a more solid critique than you did.

      Also I think some of the pieces are cool, wouldn’t mind having that Punk Homer on my wall.

  • Mickey Mouse

    Her Mickey Mouse is disturbing. I love it.
    Also, since the work is still figurative, wouldn’t it be more accurate to simply call it ‘expressionism?’ Isn’t abstract expressionism a term reserved for works that have no definitive figure whatsoever?

  • justastudent

    here i am in college, being forced to draw beautifully, when true beauty is freedom of expression…I love this art

  • Joseph Patrick

    I love her use of space and composition. There’s order in chaos. I especially love the process behind it. What can I say? I have a soft-spot for expressive Jackson Pollack-inspired art, especially when it balances between abstract and structured form!

  • Jonathan Lyons

    In order to properly comment on such work, I’ll need to create a chaotic deviation of the English language. By mashing up arabic letters, I will both evoke and suggest the work itself while simultaneously discussing it.

    I inkthay ti ookslay ikelay a essmay.

  • Nikolas

    I really like the textures she creates with the paint drips and smears. She’s not afraid to “mess things up” and experiment.

  • Guest

    Can you really call this “abstract expressionism” when you can still clearly see the characters? Not a huge fan of the movement but at least I can understand what Pollock was doing. “A chaos she controls” isn’t the point of abstract expressionism. It is a subconscious creation. I do like her style, its dark and chaotic but it is “expressionism” not abstract expressionism.