Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object.

–Simone Weil

All right, y’all pushing, you’re pushing, you’re pushing. Just relax, relax. You’re pushing it. It will go up by itself.  Don’t put nothing in it unless you feel it.

–Nina Simone

It is a task to come to see the world as it is.

–Iris Murdoch

Attending to Particulars

The artist Jen Mazza sees the task of painting as continual expelling of oneself from the matter at hand; a surrender of intention in favor of attention. This is a show about how we look at artworks, how we look at objects, and how we look at ourselves and other people.

“Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” writes Iris Murdoch.  There is a truth revealing faculty to attention, it rewards us with the knowledge of other people and the world, not as we would wish them into existence-compel them to be for our own use and purposes-but as independent of our will, posing themselves as obstacles resistant to our control. Mazza is inspired by Murdoch’s thought that artists enact just this form of attention, and works of art, in turn, help us to learn how to pay better attention to the world.

What unites the paintings in this show, beyond a neutral palette of chromatic greys, is the mode of attention paid to the objects represented. These paintings are all doing what Simone Weil describes above, attending to an object, and in doing so, they pose a question: What is an object? And, moreover, what objects are appropriate now as subjects for painting?  The muted color palette seems important for having this meditative attention”there is nothing that commands the eye beyond the object itself. Of the ten paintings in the show, the largest is of an array of numbers, ranging from 0 to 255, and is a reproduction of one of many data images sent back to Earth from the 1969 Mariner 6 and 7 mission to Mars. Numbers appear again in a large painting of shells.  Another painting takes form from a poem by Alice Notley, the text excised but all of the punctuation left intact; a fragmented interior is visible through the holes cut through the page.  Six oil paintings of Etruscan Mirrors focus on the gaze, three of which depict the reflective side, each marred with an inscription made upon the death of the owner to literally ˜stop the gaze.  The other three slightly larger mirror paintings show the decorated reverse of the mirror in which multiple figures are engaged in mutual regard.

Mazza was caught by a comment made by the artist Kadar Attia last fall in dialog with the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne at Columbia University.  Attia said “we have lost the notion of us,” lost the sense that we are a community of the living and the dead. Mazza feels we have lost the ability to recognize something about ourselves and others and also lost track of a moment when the constitution of the self was in the gaze of others, before the mirror’s function had solidified into the narcissistic. Murdoch thought both art and love de-center the self. “gazing is the master image” she writes. The artist believes that what we seek to see is hidden in plain sight, so careful attention is needed to slow and complicate how we look. These paintings, of literal mirrors and of objects constituted otherwise (by classification, by excision, and objects constituted between works by constellation) aim to regain that lost notion, the notion of us, by attending to objects.  Changing the present requires taking up the materials of our past differently, reappropriating them towards the formulation of a new manner of reflecting on who we are.

(Press Release – Attending to Particulars, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Spring 2020)

\ /\/\/\/\/\ /\\\\\\\\\///////////\ A PAINTING IS A MACHINE

“the matter vibrates with attention, vibrates with process, vibrates with inherent present time.”
Clarice Lispector

–through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!

William Carlos Williams

A painting is a machine: both object and system, it is at once receptive and productive.  Paintings are machines that make meaning.

In constructing a painting I look for ways that objects, images and marks can be combined to form conjunctions and disjunctions; to build a painting which is conceptually in motion; in the process of becoming // becoming meaning // becoming meaning-full. Sometimes this involves a correspondence, a conversation or an intervention within a chosen image-subject.  Other times the images are found already in the world, and my role is to presence the existing tension through a selective translation into paint.  But a painting is never a ‘one night stand’ to misquote Jack Spicer.  I am particularly interested in the way that meaning evolves within a body of work; as Spicer said of his poems: I feel a series forms a community of paintings that echo and re-echo against each other to create resonances.  Often for me the most interesting and most lasting works of art are those that seem never to complete the circuit; never to finish what they are saying: where the solution is often a question-or even something tenuous and unresolved or those, like Tinguely’s Homage to New York, in which the internal dynamic seems ready to undermine the mechanism to destroy itself.

Most of the paintings in this particular series engage in a conversation between the digital/machine-made and the artist-made, and the particular conventions and inventions possible to each form and between forms.  There is a dualism between the hand and the machine: the digital origins of the Blow-up paintings, the utility patterns turned wall-paper, the printed postcard of flowers with the arbitrary scribble, the dumb Photoshop marks over the scene on the Bosphorus, the colorized apples even the mechanization of my own process in the large paintings, where I serve as the machine, in all nature and machine combine and converse.

Jen Mazza, 2015

Artist Talk – Feb. 13, 2018, Pratt Institute

The author Joan Didion gave a lecture in the 1970’s entitled Why I Write – the title came from a text by George Orwell – She liked the sound of the words and she said There – you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this: I …I… I.  In many ways writing is the act of saying I, and she continues to say there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writers sensibility on the readers most private space.

An artist talk is just that sort of imposition.

Paintings are generally silent – but artists are nowadays expected to talk.  I often tell my students that to let others language their work is to allow others to have control over how the work is seen/experienced.  I offer the artist Francis Bacon as an example of someone who used language effectively to open up meaning and understanding in his work, but I would also say, his words did not illustrate this work, but instead the words perform in a similarly ambiguous way as the work itself.

In a conversation with David Sylvester, Bacon said:

When talking about the violence of paint, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It has to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself the violence of suggestions within the image which can only be conveyed through paint. We nearly always live through screens, a screened existence.  And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.

The first time I chose this quote to talk about my work, I was at the end of a ten year period of figuration.  The second time – nearly ten years later, I focused on this part of the quote:  We nearly always live through screens, a screened existence.

I am quite convinced that the number of museum visitors today and the way I notice visitors engage with painting especially – the meaning and richness they find in painting – is a result of a certain kind of training – a training that involves looking at screens.  Never before has the general population spent so much time focusing on anything 2 dimensional that was also primarily a still image.  A painting is a screen – but an embodied screen, its physicality distinguishes it.

I was recently talking with a younger artist who was applying to grad schools and we got to talking about painting and the question arose – why did I stop painting the figure? … I decided it had to do with moving from painting the body (as subject) to painting embodied works.  Embodied is a word that makes manifest something incarnate, of the flesh, of humanity.  The German philosopher Hegel would suggest that an artwork addresses us as a quasi-human – and yet as dead matter – it takes a stance towards reality – towards the living.  Adorno says “Art protests against reality by its own objectivation.”  Objectivation: the conversion of a concept or abstraction into an object.

The artist Hito Steyerl says The poor image tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming.

A projection is only the ghost of an object, which brings me to the point – a screen is the worse way to look at a painting.  So as I talk, I will show the work, but I will also use language to suggest how the work functions — One common quality of my work is to engage with painting as painting, to make choices and maneuvers that only come over in the direct experience of the work, and what you will see, the digital projection, will suffer a certain flattening and will work, only perhaps in the ways a photograph or a projection works, but not as a painting works.

Adorno says that painting contains “sedimented time” and to me, the screen, the projection, squeezes out what is temporal and developing in a painted work, the tensions that exist in painting: the simultaneity.  For a painting is all surface.

From Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (after the Parmigianino portrait) by John Ashbery:

But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.

Adorno also says that “Those pictures seem the most successful in which what is absolutely simultaneous seems like a passage of time that is holding its breath.”

I believe painting’s limits are its possibilities, that painting’s failure to be anything but still/stationary, endows it with a particular ability to speak about the temporal and to embody our own failing relationship to time – our own limited finite life.  In the world nearly everything moves, isn’t it magic to hold life still.

In 2015 I had a show I titled A painting is a machine.

The title comes from: the Introduction to The Wedge (1944) by poet William Carlos Williams where he says “a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.”  (although it initially came from Baudelaire describing Delacroix.)

I felt I wanted a painting to do something. A painting could be a machine: both object and system, it is at once receptive and productive.  Paintings are machines that make meaning.  I wanted to make work that was conceptually in motion.  Often I looked for ways that objects, images and marks can be combined to form conjunctions and disjunctions.  the surface interventions were there to create a tension, and a conversation —

“Suppose we were to say at this point, something is a picture only in a picture-language.”

So said the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein — Wittgenstein thought that talking about art often produced nonsense.  He thought there were different “language games”, spoken/verbal language and visual art were not the same games.  One cannot understand a sentence detached from a language.

“To express in the same language” means to measure with the same rule.
We can only make comparisons within language.

“When I think in language, there aren’t meanings going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.”

Wittgenstein (PI 109)

I would add — The process of painting is the vehicle for thought.  The image coincides with the thought.

I had noticed a tendency that viewers had on looking at a painting“ they would often call out a word or name, if it was a picture of apples – they would say apple! and not only that,  they would go on to try to define the work in terms of its apple-ness, the history of painted apples etc.

There is an anecdote about Wittgenstein – in it he catches sight of the children’s storybook Rumpelstiltskin (the story of the girl who must try to spin straw into gold, an evil little man helps her in exchange for her firstborn child, unless she guesses his name) Wittgenstein quotes the song the little man sings that is overheard: “Oh, how good it is that no one knows that my name is Rumpelstiltskin, and then he uttered the words: ‘Profound, profound,’ with a look of amazement.”

Rumplestiltskin’s power was his un-namability. I feel the power of an artwork is its resistance to being named or summed up using words, its complexity goes beyond words.  The poet Rosmarie Waldrop says that Wittgenstein tried to deal with problems by making them into language problems[1].  Wittgenstein replies: “our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.”[2]

I wanted the paintings to hold all that overflow, that seemed the point of making something a painting.  At first, witnessing this naming tendency resulted in a feeling of slight frustration, I felt that the naming of objects often mislead understanding rather than clarified it, and limited it.

And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name
John Ashbery

You can’t say it that way any more.
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing,

“as is painting so is poetry.”  So said the Roman poet Horace (December 8, 65 BC – November 27, 8 BC), in his Ars Poetica  – Ashbery responds: “You can’t say it that way anymore.”

I have often thought, the reverse– as in poetry so in painting“ and now I respond “You can’t say it that way anymore.”

For years I have used the word Translation (meaning to carry across) implying that the words moved across into the images, but that is not how I make images, the image, and something else – something of its conveyance – the paint; the image and the paint are the thought.  They are the language, the form the idea takes.

so now I feel the word Transubstantiation; a movement across substance the conversion of the substance which has no affect on appearance of a substance: still wine and bread and yet something else.

What can be shown cannot be said.
That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus. §4.121)

In the limits of painting are its possibilities  – I wanted to hold words at bay — I wanted showing not saying

Rather than naming an object depicted and watching all of its aspects organize themselves around that name, I wanted the viewer to spend more time being ambiguous about the work. I wanted viewers to engage with the work not in a determinate way but as an open question — as a means of being able to grasp a larger project of ambiguity as it is embodied in the ways a work of art produces meanings not just singly but in manifold ways.  That is, in ways the art object allows for the possibility of developing and changing meaning both in the moment and over time.  I wished viewers to spend time noticing and considering.  So, rather than stamping my foot when a name was uttered, I wondered what it would be like to take a counter-strategy, and use this tendency to name to my support my own agenda. What would be the result of facilitating naming as a way to speed up the process of un-naming? How could I use naming as an effective route to ambiguity?

At the moment I am creating a series of large paintings of images/objects that appear readily identifiable and easily named, everyday objects for example, but use the painting process and the manipulation of the images that painting allows, in order to, in Adorno’s words “make a break between the sign and what it signifies.”  In endeavoring to un-name the object, and divorce it from its conventional and cultural content as way of opening up space for new meaning to develop, I also hope to demonstrate ways in which art is one of the most successful tools for modeling productive ambiguity.  A space that allows for developing meanings through a specificity that resists generalization, and that to appreciate art is often to feel at ease in a space where nothing can be exactly defined.

[1] Rosmarie Waldrop, Against Language (The Hague: Mouton & Co. 1971): 11.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, “A Lecture on Ethics”, in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan., 1965): 7.

“Are you writing now?”
Maurice Blanchot

–at all times translating
Jacques Roubaud

“if I combined the words cleverly, the subject was floundering in the signs.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Process and Language:  The book and its image in The Words

I have always privileged written above visual language for its precision.  As a painter I have envied words their success in communication, their clarity, their universality, their common resonance.  Thus I have only lately discovered the beauty of misunderstanding.  I am fascinated by the translation of ideas from one language into another, one form into another, while gaining or losing in the process.  This process, this “translation” becomes more and more the focus of my attention.

Because much of my work has taken inspiration from language and reading, the idea of painting the book seemed a natural progression. There also seem to be formal parallels; as in a painting, where form becomes the vehicle for content, the book serves as the support the text — both visible and invisible it mediates the experience of reading.  The book is a place where the world of ideas and the physical world of objects merge.

In the process of selecting the subjects for my paintings, I find I have compiled a sort of “object biography” which reflects a great deal of my own personal history without limiting the possible readings and resonances.  It was my particular experience of reading Proust, perhaps because of its sheer length – and indeed Proust said the same thing of his experience of reading – that life begins to overlap a text, and to a certain degree the moment a book is read becomes fused with the book itself. The book is a container for much more than the single story which peppers its pages.  This is especially apparent with the passing of time, merely by seeing the cover of familiar book or reading a paragraph we are transported into our own past.

The process of creating the paintings is also a dialogue with form and ideas. Though the finished images are representational, the paintings remain “open”, literally blank, through a great deal of the process.  Each image begins as a near abstraction, the book is reduced to its rectangular form placed so as to be somewhat antagonistic to its support (not unlike Malevich’s White on White) with images and text only appearing later in the process.  The supports themselves (the stretched canvases) are often subtly rough around the edges, or just slightly askew, allowing for the objectness of the canvas to both support and undermine the illusion of the objectness of the book.

To me the paintings seem “purer” in this quasi-abstract state, even if they are already slightly verging on the heretical to notions of true abstraction.  Even so, I feel compelled to further compromise or subvert this formal purity with subsequent layers of content.  Agnes Martin once said that her work was “about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect – completely removed in fact – even as we ourselves are.”   Through the use of overlapping layers of content and form I desire to “tie the paintings down, burden them so as to bring them down to life’s level; to bring them into the clutter of dailyness and see if they still keep something of that nebulous sense of truth.”

Influences and Process:  Painting and the Everyday

“My intention (is) to describe what remains: that which we generally don’t notice, which doesn’t call attention to itself, which is of no importance: what happens when nothing happens, what passes when nothing passes, except time, people, cars, and clouds.”  Georges Perec

At present the most discernable influences on my work are the writings of Queneau, Perec and the Oulipo, who were interested in puzzles, imposing constraints, instructions, clues… in a sense drawing both the writer’s and the reader’s attention to form and its ability to succeed or to fail to translate one’s ideas.

Here I am reminded of the “rules” of painting and visual expression but find myself swayed to be “bad”, to express “badly” as Beckett said: “ill seen ill said”.

And following along this train of thought – I have found nothing more freeing then the suggestion that I may, within my own work, choose to be completely opaque.  And I don’t mean a sort of Joycean strategy of knotting up language, where each reference may be unraveled, but instead a puzzle, whose lengthy solution may prove that there is no solution, or may prove nothing.  And so I am interested in offering up misreadings, in espousing fallacies, in positing false truths and using these “truths” as constraints.  I begin to wonder whether my subject matter exists within the process or with the relic of the process, that being the finished painting.

I paint within a realist tradition as I enjoy the disjunction of resisting or thwarting literal expectations: my paintings always give back something other than that which would be offered by the object in person or its photographic likeness.   What realism allows me to do is feign reality, and I mentioned above: to imply truths, and to lie.  There is within representation the illusion of reality; it draws on the system of beliefs which defines what we experience as reality.  I am making paintings that while presenting the real (i.e.: “truth”) still consistently draw attention to their form: within each painting there is a reminder of it’s contrivance (painting as vehicle of contrivance, painting as device, as translation) and in so doing I create friction between the image and the means by which the image is substantiated.

Once upon a time I would have claimed that I used the language of painting as a tool, but now I will admit that the tool is vying with the image as the subject, and through this insistence the formal tools do much to control the outcome.  The process has become the subject, the finished product it’s artifact.  And how is this apparent?  I am not sure it needs to be.  To me it seems enough that the process propels and supports the product, leave it to temporal mediums to reveal themselves in progression.  What interests me is the potential of removing the romantic quality of inspiration and replacing it with something everyday.  “What happens when nothing happens?”

My goal is that by following the process, my process, I will have recorded something of what was there in the moment, perhaps an unseen, unrealized truth floating nebulous in the air, or perhaps I may mark a moment in time before having the knowledge of its importance, and know something of what is by not closing down the possibilities too soon, by not judging: creating a structure for progress that is both scientific and reflexive, a process which exists in time and makes a relic of that time, that will mark that day, that moment: not necessarily a train wreck or an earthquake, but the slow erosion of the hours.

“How can we speak of these “common things”, how rather, can we stalk them, how can we flush them out, rescue them from the mire in which they remain stuck, how can we give them a meaning, a tongue, so that they are at last able to speak of the way things are, the way we are?”  Georges Perec

Jen Mazza, 2012