Joyce Pensato is a latecomer to fame.
The Brooklyn-based artist has been rolling around the boroughs of New York since she was born in 1941 and hit the art scene in the 1970s, but her fame only began to percolate in the past four years.
Which is just as well, as she fully admits she is ready for it and can handle it now. If it had come sooner, she might have been one of those early fame fatalities.
My ship came in, and hopefully it won’t sink.
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Her work is the subject of “Focus: Joyce Pensato” at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. For her exhibit, she has painted an enormous mask of Batman on a 15-foot canvas. For another gallery she has brought photos from her studio that show her influences and the flinging paint that speckles everything — Robert De Niro from Raging Bull, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln.
No one and nothing is spared her splatters.
The center gallery has a lineup of white eyes on black panels. The oval ones are borrowed from Homer Simpson, the round ones from Fritz the Cat.
Pensato has an inimitable theme that reoccurs in her large paintings. She melds comic-book references and animated characters — the mask of Batman, the eyes of Homer Simpson, the ears of Mickey Mouse, the tiny pupils of the South Park kids. And, with a limited palette of black, white and metallics, she paints the identifying parts in large, sweeping, drippy brush strokes and makes them menacing.
That she can take something as simple as the bug eyes of Homer Simpson, and, with a few deft strokes, render him recognizable yet threatening is remarkable.
The painting motion is like boxing with a brush.
“The painting motion is like boxing with a brush,” she says. And the fallout is similar to sitting on the front row at a fight: Things get spattered. Juices flow.
Pensato uses a cherry picker to get the height she needs to paint these large canvases. She used to climb up and down a ladder, but now, she says, “fuhgeddaboutit.”
She was born in Flatbush, N.Y., and moved three subway stops down the line to Brooklyn. She was an early pioneer of the art scene there. She says you have to take the L train to get to her.
“It used to be called the Low Life Line,” she says. Now, because Brooklyn has become trendy, it’s the Love Line.
There is a photograph on the gallery wall of Gena Rowlands from the 1980s film Gloria; she is holding a gun and looks directly at the camera lens.
“This,” Pensato says, “is a woman in charge. It’s a feminist statement. She can take care of stuff. I think of it as a self-portrait.”
As the photographer beckons, Pensato rats her hair higher, sheds her gold jewelry and takes off a black blazer, revealing a Debbie Harry T-shirt and black jeans, the outfit of a club kid.
She stands in front of the Batman mask and as soon as she hears the first click of the shutter, she raises her arms in a fighting pose.
Pensato is ready to take on the world.
Focus: Joyce Pensato
- Through Jan. 31
- Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth
- Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
- 817-738-9215; www.themodern.org