Rev., Aug 20, 2013. Posted, June 14, 2019. RIP Joyce Pensato.
Back in the day, I did not grasp that to write about art to a general public audience you have to use short-cuts, or heuristics. So I used to joke about the way Michael Brenson of the Times would always place an artist by saying he or she was “a synthesis of abstract expressionism and Pop Art” or “combines the best elements of Cezanne, Erte and Yayoi Kusama.” I used to call this checkers “brensonize.” It serves to place an artist, but this language is by no means art criticism. It’s OK, I get it now, when you write for the public, its got to be radarish, but I don’t do that anymore. It strikes me, after a brief encounter with the work of Joyce Pensato, and Pensato is frequently brensonized by critics who aren’t sure what she is up to. The usual line is that she presents, well, as above, “a synthesis of abstract expressionism and Pop Art.” This is inadequate. So, let’s try to figure out the algorithm by which Pensato extracted from prior practice of others, an original art.
Very briefly, Pollock laid down the platform, from which all expressionistic or gestural painting comes. His art at its prime included material, gesture, form, color and a time-element. In form, that would include the support and where it was located vis a vis the artist. Greenberg, to simplify, focused on the interlacing of form as, suppressing material, even exertional gesture, color, and the traditional easel-oriented time element, Pollock laid down a kind of purely abstract painting that flattened out space and was only for the eye. Then Greenberg watched in horror as Rosenberg’s interpretation of Pollock gesture first, as action painter, took over the critical debate, and artists began to emphasize the gesture, from which the form of paint mark was an expression, in a way which spiritualized paint (Greenberg does have a funny reading of how that equation deteriorated quickly into a dreary mannerism I think he called the Tenth Street Touch, in his later essay on postpainterliness). Both interpretations were still cult readings of Pollock. Whether focused on for his process (Rosenberg) or his end product (Greenberg), either way, paint was a mark that represented either the pure psychology or pure spirit and expression of the artist. In this way, the artist as primary agent of modern art was instrumentalized, and painting became, for a time, the mark of the self, of expression. Pollock’s action painting only animated painting in a new way, intensying the embodiment of the artist in the physical output in a painting.
Predictably, in human activity, the cult brought other ways of animating painting. There were other ways in which the work of art was found to embody the inner self. These are beyond the focus of this little algorithmic exercise. But then too the cult image has an animated energy that others seek to keep, so relics of painting also emerged (played with by Rauschenberg), objects, found objects, additions, constructions, that could be added into the mix, the paint now taking on, to encompass objects, a more material second purpose to involve or sink or fix or embrace these objects in the goo of paint that represented still the inner self, but more in the manner of a stick substance that sucks outside inside into a tissue or an organ. Sacrifice was made to this relic keeping, and relics too took on magic purpose, as extensions of the cult of the artist (Rauschenberg again). And then of course along came the iconoclasts to break up the cult. Johns proved that an expressionistic looking painterliness could be executed in a non-expressive way. Call it the Five Easy Pieces response to Expressionism, how beautiful, says Susan Anspach, in the movie of that name, 1970, I played the easiest piece I knew, I felt nothing, Jack Nicholson responds. And Warhol too picking up on the iconoclastic moment declared that to express oneself in a painting was too personal and ickily subjective, far better to only pay attention to the outside of life, the culture around us, and, this from Rauschenberg too, paint with readymades provided by the commercial environment.
While in Pollock, then, the drip represented the self, in a cult of the self, and was, then, to a certain extent spiritualized, or animated by the artist, almost like the whispering blood in the Japanese movie Ringu 2, in Rauschenberg it was just a sticky substance that fixed outer objects in a kind of in-between space, part self, part space responded to, while in Warhol the drip was mechanized into a printing glitch or color variation in another process. The drip of course went on to have a whole afterlife in painting, and then in the 1980s artists again discovered that painting itself was not a spiritual substance evoking an inner world of idealistic spirituality, but paint, a material used to cover houses and walls, a material signifier, contributing to décor, and, as Halley said, comparing painted surface to the stuccoing on the ceilings of motel rooms, a flat, meaningless stain made sense of only by what network or circuitry it was involved in.
The path through art history does not provide us with a clear way to see how Pensato got to her work. Better then to return to the idea that the drip served the cult of the artist, and go from there. If the artist is the cult god, then substances come in, for symbolic purposes, as part of ritual cult activity. The first liquid substance is water, used to purify the adorant, and even to wash the idol, both acts which make sacred the sacred spot inside the magic circle of the rite. If paint, then paint in art, is the ritual equivalent of blood, and we might as well say, since we are talking about genius and torture, blood, sweat and tears. In ritual life, blood only came into the ritual picture only during the later or often central act of cult, the sacrifice. This was an act which was done to expiate or appease the god. It is a votive response to the cult, but entailing a sacrifice not leaving a votive work of art to continue to pray for one and seek intercession from the god. The relationship between Pollock’s drip and bodily fluids has been explored many times, with some wrong conclusions. But let’s just say that that is what it is. Blood, then, enters into it when in sacrifice the offering is cut, shedding first blood, then when killed, spilling the blood, and then when done, the blood smeared about to demonstrate to the god that it was done, to seal the deal of appeasement, to convince ourselves that our expiation has been recognized, and to therefore signify to the attendants that the sacrifice was accepted. Blood can also be spilled about widely as well as an act of precautionary expiation, to say to say the spirit of the jungle we are sorry for our sacrifice but there will be only this one, to let the god know that this was done in respect, and is not a savage act intending to kill other its subjects.
And I have also found other uses of blood: based on rubrics of relations between the physical and spiritual linked to traditional understanding. In this system, life is a series of onionskins, to be peeled off, to get down to spirit. Thus, blood signifies an inner layer of self, so shedding it ritually is a way for the adorants to shed body and get deeper or closer to spirit, it is a way to break down the wall between here and there, to get closer to spirit, through a gateway of blood. This way of thinking of it is partly related ritualized approach of sacred space. The simplest example of this is the famous dance of the seven veils, originally, believed, in art legend, to be a ritual act done by an adorant as she approached the sacred place, through seven gates, each time removing an article of clothing, so that in the end she arrives before the god naked. Translate this model to the body itself, and body peels back to blood, etc., etc. (the gateway model also made sense of the hours, as in the Egyptian Book of Gates, and seasons, Halloween being, for example, a time of overlap of worlds after a period of converging gates). The main traditional task of bloodshow was appeasement, to show the god that we have sacrificed, do not, therefore, seek other sacrifice from us. It was also imitative magic, giving a living being was like impregnating nature, to ensure next year’s crops would be better.
There is also the danger that the adorant will become so entranced by the act of sacrifice that they will spill blood not in hope of expiation or appeasement, but to express a blood curse, or a blood feud, that more blood will be shed, in effect, this is reverse magic, the fetishization of ritual (see above). Another human use of blood is to make a bond, in blood brothership, also a pledge to shed blood for one’s brother, see Henry V, it has come to that. Blood sacrifice, there are variants.
Moving beyond that, there are other fluids spilled for other reasons. In baptism, water brings a child into the membership. The water is also a sign of new life. When a priest tosses holy water on you with an aspergilliam the splash is meant to bind you the community in blessing. Water taken from a font is also a blessing that makes you belong. In this capacity, a fluid is spilled to materialize shed grace. Other forms: shirts permeated with the sweat or blood of a cult object are relics, treasured as elements of the self. This can include keeping of dabs of forehead sweat on a napkin, another relic of the body of the hero.
Some strange bodily fluid rituals emerge in sexual practice, but to note that these customs change by generation. A generation ago it was apparently to prime goal of sexual feeling in male or female to feel the ejaculate splash inside the body of the conceiving woman. Today in the safe-sex era bodily fluids are suspect, carriers of sickness and disease, and unwanted pregnancy, so common, is horrifying, so what used to be called pollution, the spilling of ejaculate on the body of the female, not inside the female, as a form of contraception sometimes recommended by the church, described as the worst sort of sexual perversion by Hepburn in an Albee movie, in the 60s, is now not only recommended but has been cultured, by cult activity, so that, by making a ‘thing’ of a ritual that seemed gross some time ago, both man and woman will remember, anywhere but inside the vagina, thus the facial, the spilling of the sperm on the face or breasts or body of the woman, is now almost a ritual.
In the pop age, it is likely that paint represented spiritual elements of creativity either purely abstractly or as an agent of attachment of meaning, sticking an object to the web of meaning embodied by paint. Only after Halley did the spill of paint adopt the more literal metaphor of being a kind of extraneous bodily fluid, the equivalent of sweat and blood, if measuring effort, but also sweat and piss and also, again, blood from wounds, the equivalent of waste and damage. In this time, the bodily fluid metaphor then turned sinister, and was soaked in a new negativity about bodily fluids. No doubt the metaphor was then extended to refer also to sperm. As the age of sperm invisibly squirted inside the interior of vaginas, under sheets, out of site, was replaced by an externalizing age which had to see for itself that it was spilled anywhere but there, the metaphor of waste may well have overcome the famous Pollock drip. In the Age of Intercourse, fluid was seed, fertile, in the Age of Onan, much less productive, more pollutive. Thus the drip completed its morphing from being a modern expression of inner spirit and pure psychology, the very ectoplasm of one’s spirit, to being a postmodern expression of external bodily function and impure physiology. It is in this context, in a charge that, again, happened under the aegis of the literalization of painting by Peter Halley in the mid-1980s, that Pensato likely developed the idea that the old spill could be used in a new way to perform new rituals and express new ideas about the world beyond pure psychology. This is just a conjecture, Pensato is 70, she would have been in her 40s in the 80s, it’s possible. In any case, given this elaborate evolution, it is kind of absurd to relate Pensato’s spills to the drips of the abstract expressionism. It does not seem to relate, except as pictures are lined up in art history textbooks and connections made based on formal and visual rhymes between things that have little in common (and not even monographs and studies).
This devaluation and externalization of the drip was then given license to be about more than just the bodily metaphor by neoconceptualism. Neoconceptualism was about taking primary structures and deconstructing them to discern all the workings of cultural migration around them. In conceptualism there were primary structures, touching upon nature, in neoconceptualism, there is no such thing as a primary structures, all structures are cultured, everything is culture. When you reviewed a work of neoconceptual painting, for example, it was not just the painting, but the situation of the painting in the culture of painting and in the larger visual culture that you had to also take into consideration. Bad painting read as simply painting was just that, bad painting. Bad painting correctly interpreted by the broader cultural lens of discerning where the images in the painting had come from, how they had migrated from one art form, usually in popular culture, to another, in what 80s artists still thought of a redemptive high culture, was what mattered. It was this kind of migratory calculus that I repeatedly sought to put into words in my complex reviews for Arts magazine in the 80s and 90s, with limited success. Again, Pensato ‘s work only has meaning, was only given license for its extension of the drip as splatter onto objects and images of popular culture, by the algorithma of migration theory as applied to neoconceptualism. In this context, a few things. Pensato performed, it appears, three or four functions with her paint. She used it as the material basis for graffiti, which she painted directly onto walls. This is not done by accident. Her paint then is more likely the equivalent of spray can paint or any other spill of paint used to make public places. It is groundless, in terms of formalist painting. It is part of life, immediate, spontaneous, iconic. I have written of graffiti elsewhere, but one of the most interesting things about paint in the context of graffiti is that, in its microstructure, it is simultaneously two things, from two views, it is both an act of protest from the protestor, therefore, brave, meaningful, wonderful, and an act of vandalism, from its opponent, an ugly smear, a stain, a desecration. She then gave form to these splashes by doing up her own versions of pop culture icons in the very context of these mixed emotions. In so far as when she applied her paint to these icons she often reversed their meaning and in particular extracted from what appeared to be only their positive elements in their market lives a darker, more sinister undertone, she was exactly in keeping with the east village art scene, the neo-geo revision, the emergence of so-called post pop in 1986, as well as graffiti or street art, and bad painting. Think of the difference: Pollock was in a studio standing over a canvas laid reverently on that floor with a can of paint to lace lazily onto it the fullest easiest most fluid expressions of his body and its nerves as expressions of his inner self. Pensato was confronting a wall, straining, splashing, dripping, smearing it, reaching beyond her comfort zone at all times, to remake in darkness an icon from outside of her mind, but part of her popular culture, internalized to her reading of it as an artist. While Pollock created a cult image of himself, animating his spirit in action painting, Pensato was performing a personally meaningful act of icono-change to create something new of a prefabricated cultural image and at the same time using paint as a splattering almost vandalizing substance (not unlike the vandal who threw green paint on the Lincoln Memorial last month), to redirect and deconstruct and tear down the pure positive iconic meaning of that cult image, out there in culture, so that the resulting image became an expression of the space between it and her interpretation of it in culture. While Pollock was about soul, Pensato was about perception, Pollock about painting per se, Pensato about the culture around painting, in Pollock paint was spiritual, in Pensato it is physical and personal.
I have wanted to characterize all of Pensato’s painterly splashes, throws, spills, drips, drains, etc etc globally, universally, as meaning one thing, in all forms. I have wanted to write that Pensato’s actions all represent iconoclasm or cultural vandalism. But they also build up, as much as they tear down. Some marks are examples of paint being thrown in a vandalzing way on an icon, some marks are just splashes of excitement, expressive of the process, some marks are drips in the Pollock sense, it’s a mix. It cannot be pinned down. But, a few things, about their agency. The primary difference between Pollock and Pensato is that while for Pollock paint was an internal element animating the cult of the inner self, in Pensato paint is an external element for enacting various acts of votive, sacrificial, iconoclastic, and even apotropaic acts against the icons she has selected to darkly worship in depiction. Put in terms of an old Greek temple, Pollock used paint like a cult image zapping an adorant with a sign of his life and power, Pensato is the adorant making offerings of various sorts in front of the cult image. Hers by no means is a classic modern artist cult of the artist art. She is acting as a devotee of the culture at large, to comment on the culture at large.
Some of her marks seem to want to besmirch and smear icons with paint, to desecrate them, they are iconoclastic, they are meant to mess them up. When you see paint splashed on a picture of Abraham Lincoln, it comes off as an insult, the act of the artist as an insult. But then other icons like a rubber statue of Daffy Duck, while it could be said that at first her splash of black paint on it was an insult, an attempt by an artist to bring an icon down a notch, as the splash adds up the strokes begin to change valency in midstream, they begin to reformulate the image, they seem to begin to spill onto the image in way that makes him almost seek the spill, to glory in it as a sign of devotion, at last the obscuring lacing of the spill becomes so meshlike that you like it to a spider web and when considering that the dripping was let build up and spread over all things in Pensato’s studio its clear that at its most extreme form the splash did escalate into a culture-making, nest-making, spider-web-spinning way to wrest the object out of wherever it might have been before, and make it part of Pensato culture, inside her web of splashing and spilling (in this sense I could liken it to the webbings that miasmatically create new beings out of pods or other cocooning enclosures in various expressions in horror movies).
John Yau (Hyperallergic, February, 2012, re Petzel website artist’s page) very cogently described Pensato’s work in ethnic terms. As an Italian American of a certain age, she knows that her parents were lumped in with all Others and subject to insults in Anglo Saxon American mainstream culture. One might imagine, taking images from movies, the various ways in which outsiders were bullied, with things thrown at them, marked, splattered on, etc etc (these images will have to be collected, but they are many: including Carrie, splashed by a bucket of pig’s blood). In this context, the marks are remembrances of those insults, but, also, since Pensato has built the practice up into a countercultural nestmaking, a return and retribution against those marks, black paint to remember and mark but somehow expiate for or at least gain a sense of understanding of the marks.
This is where I think Abraham Lincoln comes in, as otherwise Pensato’s attack on him seems to make no sense. Lincoln too was demonized as an Other by mainstream America (though he was, in fact, Anglo), accused of being a melungeon, a halfbreed, a n—lover, a logcabin hayseed, a monkey, a freak with acomegaly. He too was marked, so he too gains admittance into the negative pantheons of the stereotyped and otherized.
I think then in the end Pensato’s markings are finally redemptive, in an odd way. She is an iconoclast, but in a sublimated way. She still pays homage, but her ritual has taken in some negativity, grounded in a fuller grimly realistic recognition of the migration of her own blood in American culture, the struggle by the immigrant to become an American, and she has shown to given physical form in a weblike sticky substance to acknowledge the insults, but reverse or own them as part of her culture, meaning that in the end what we really see in Pensato’s work is not Abstract Expressionism or Pop or even PostPop but the antiassimilationist pop art of an artist with a private culture with its own particular pantheon that projects a different view, given her ethnic background, a kind of invented history, if you will, of the culture, a private culture. And in that private culture the icons are painted, and marked up, and worshipped, but negatively, and the blood is spilled in the form of black paint, encompassing in it metaphors of bodily fluid, and the rituals are different, blessing, splattering, including, desecrating, remembering, resolving, offering an expiation of I’m sorries, in her own sort of black mass inversion of cult worship, to say a large and lasting excuse me to the pieties and dualities of the modern era.