Praying Mantis Disco Queen: An Interview With Artist Joyce Pensato

Walking into Joyce Pensato's vast studio in Bushwick, I’m first greeted by Elizabeth Ferry, an artist and Pensato's studio assistant, as well as Charlie, an eerie looking, sweet dog whose right eye is blind by cataracts. Pensato herself is short, but tall in personality. Her shoes feel more stylish, remnants perhaps of days in Paris, but still they’re perfectly covered in her signature paint drippings. As we sit, Ferry is busily packing up the space because they leave the next day for the closing of Pensato’s recent show, “The Fizz,” which has been on display at Grice Bench Gallery in Los Angeles. After this, they come back briefly to prepare and work for upcoming exhibitions in Chicago, and then Austria.

At the end of the following interview, we take some photos. Pensato grabs her pink wig and white shades and walks over to a big painting featuring a frenetically deconstructed Batman character. She becomes something reminiscent of a praying mantis disco queen. Once she feels satisfied, she hands over the disguise to me and I give her my camera. Seems only fair she gets to photograph me too. Before moving onto another look, Ferry joins in and we go through the sunglasses, and the props.

In the following interview, I talk to Pensato about her current freedom of expression within the art world, the correlation between the understanding of oneself and cultivating work over time, and her new venture in photography.

ANNIE FRAME: I noticed your studio isn’t that messy. In fact, it’s quite clean at the moment.

JOYCE PENSATO: We just moved in. This is new - it will get messy.  

FRAME: Wow this is heavy.  [I reach for my phone but have to move her recent splurge – a giant lock shaped chain necklace by Chanel].

PENSATO: It’s real. I got paint all over it, but I’m too lazy to clean it.

FRAME: You mentioned in a previous interview that you were experimenting with photography and found imagery.  

[Joyce takes out her camera to show a new, unseen series of photographs where she and Ferry, along with two other actors are dressed as stereotypical Hollywood characters; big sunglasses, jewelry, sipping bubbles under the palm trees looking incredibly performative, and intentionally campy].

PENSATO: Did it? I’m not sure. But we did have a great time in LA taking these photographs. I was playing around. We took these at the pool. Look at Elizabeth, doesn’t she look great! A real Patsy [Cline]. This guy! He was a George Clooney impersonator and we flew him in just to do this. He doesn’t look like him here - but in the others he really does.

FRAME: I like the more weird things about LA.

PENSATO: Me too. I want to do this shoot, but in New York. Dress everyone up, I’ll close this bar down for the day, and photograph the inside.

FRAME: Yes! Do it. I bartend part time when I’m not doing this, and I have crazy teeth. Maybe I can be your bartender in the background.

PENSATO: You do have the teeth - we could have you in something.

FRAME:  Would you ever live in LA?

PENSATO: No. I would visit for some time for work, but this is where I’ve always been.

FRAME: What kind of music do you like listening to in the studio?

PENSATO: Elizabeth got me into the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I like them, but mostly I need things that are upbeat. Or I listen to talk radio.

FRAME: What was it like being a woman in the art world then versus now?

PENSATO: [laughs] To be honest, I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy doing my thing and working to notice. It’s great that women are finally getting noticed, but I was here, apart from it.

FRAME: I noticed you had a lot more color in your show, Castaway, at Petzel Gallery, and I was curious if you were becoming lighter?

PENSATO: I always start with some color. Then the color gets covered, and I go over it with varnish. It’s really the base.

FRAME: You mentioned coming to terms with feeling comfortable with yourself, and how it took you a while to stop resisting.

PENSATO: It took me awhile to get there.

FRAME: I ask because I’m really struggling with that now. I feel as if I’m too old fashioned because I work with film, or I don’t think I know what’s popular, or I’m changing my mind all the time.

PENSATO: With changing your work?

FRAME: Yeah I’m starting to incorporate text and drawings now. Maybe I’m just curious what kind of advice you would give if you were in my shoes? 

PENSATO:  You have to be yourself. And some people they have it early on. They just know. But I’m not like that.

FRAME: Me neither.

PENSATO: But everyone is different. It takes time and you figure it out eventually. You can’t be what you think you should be.

FRAME: Yeah.  

PENSATO: But it gets easier with age. You start not giving a shit and you learn to stop listening to the voices in your head - because that's what stops you. It’s all here. [Pensato places her hand to her heart] It’s all there. You have it all here.

FRAME: I think it will take me some time too.   

PENSATO: And therapy. Therapy helps.

FRAME: My last question since I know you have to get back to packing is, do you work better under pressure with a bunch of deadlines?

PENSATO: With some artists, their deadline starts right when the canvas comes off the truck. I like deadlines, and keeping busy. I don’t always know what or how - but I get there eventually.

Text, interview and photographs by Annie Frame. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE