Bat Out of Hell

Joyce Pensato: Batman Returns
Friedrich Petzel Gallery
Through February 25, 2012

In the 1970s, The Joker, Batman's greatest nemesis, had his own nine-issue comic book series, in which he faced off against a variety of both superheroes and supervillains. Because of the restrictive "comic books code," "good" ultimately had to triumph over "evil" in every storyline. This led to some creative writing strategies -- that is, how to make one of the most morally unhinged villains in superhero lore appear to do something "good" every third issue.

In the fourth and fifth issue, this problem was solved by The Joker's kidnapping of a Charles Schultz-like character and keeping him a prisoner in the HaHaHacienda. Although The Joker demanded a huge ransom for the return of Gotham's beloved cartoonist, he also derived great, sadistic pleasure from forcing the artist to write cartoons in which the Charlie Brown character was drowned, beaten up, had his puppy killed.... In the end, although The Joker eluded Batman, it was the cartoonist who had revenge. He refused to leave even after the ransom was paid. "Now I'm gonna draw myself kicking the little brat!" he said. "Leave? You can't make me leave! I'm having too much fun! I'm NEVER going to LEAVE! Ha. Ha ha! HaHaHa. HAHAHAHA...." Schultz, himself a longtime proponent of Modern and Conceptual Art, applauded the humor of the story. 

Joyce Pensato uses Batman as the predominant subject and inspiration for this exhibition. The Batman motif first appeared in her drawings in the mid-'70s and was only used periodically since then -- her mainstay subjects being animated television characters such as Bart Simpson, Homer, Mickey Mouse, and Eric Cartman. Although these characters allow Pensato the opportunity to juxtapose her heroic, muscular, gestural painting technique with the graphic lines of the animated figure, it is in these images of The Bat that she elevates her work to a deeper, psychological level.

In Batman I, Batman II, and Batman III (all 2011), we see the cowled face of Batman being reduced to a cipher. Through violent spattered strokes, she creates an image that resembles the Bat Signal -- the image that Commissioner Gordon shines on the clouds to call the hero when Gotham is in trouble. The psychology of Pensato excavating the Batman image in this way calls to mind Freud's theory of The Return of the Repressed. The Return of the Repressed is the process whereby repressed elements, preserved in the unconscious, tend to reappear in consciousness or in behavior in the shape of secondary and more or less unrecognizable "derivatives of the unconscious." Parapraxes -- bungled or symptomatic actions -- are examples of such derivatives. Beginning with The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud emphasized the "indestructible" nature of unconscious material as the irreducible character of memory traces. If we have no memories of events during the first years of life, this is because of the repression that affects them. In a sense, one could say memories are retained, their recollection depending solely on the way in which they are (or are not) invested with libidinal energy. In these paintings we see Pensato mining childhood images for hidden, internal meanings and significance, uncovering something personal in the universal visual language of pop graphic icons.

In the installation pieces included in the exhibition, Fuggetabout It I (2012) and Fuggetabout It II (2012), we are given a plethora of studio ephemera: photos of James Dean, Marlon Brando (from The Godfather), Hallowe'en masks, Larry Clark pin-up hustlers, and Sopranos publicity pictures. All of this source material is splattered with silver and black paint, like a crime scene might appear in a black-and-white police photo. Here Pensato elaborates on the creation of her imagery, allowing us into the recreated studio where her heroes -- and villains -- are made. While the installations themselves are interesting (they are reminiscent of Paul McCarthy), she runs the risk of allowing the viewer too deep into her lair. We may never want to leave. Ha. Ha ha. HaHaHaHa. HAHAHAHAHA.... - Bradley Rubenstein

The Friedrich Petzel Gallery is at 537 West 22nd Street in New York, New York.

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Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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