Art Review: Fragments & Details

Published: Friday, January 19, 2007
By Dan Bischoff
New Jersey Star Ledger

Jennifer Mazza is a Newark-based painter whose tiny oils of figural details – a woman’s mouth spilling bright red currants on a bed, or a hand crushing the crimson goo out of a jelly doughnut – have been winning notice in large group shows for the past half dozen years.  Mazza just won a studio space at PS122 in Manhattan, where she will work through October.

Now though February 15, Mazza has a on person exhibit, “Scarlet Intent” at the Tomasulo Gallery on the campus of Union County College, showcasing 20 of her paintings, the largest of which is a mere 14 by 18 inches; most no bigger than 7 by 7 inches.

Mazza works small, but she paints with a jeweler’s eye.  In fact, the first comment you might make on her work is about its resemblance to 17th-century Dutch models: dark backgrounds, tight brushwork and an emphasis on a sensual Realism that carries within it a detectable half-life of decay.

“The content of my painting is not dissimilar to that in Dutch still-life,” Mazza says.  “It pays a similar attention to luxury, sensuality and an awareness of death – the emotions are complicated.”

The juxtaposition of luxury and death makes the work quite contemporary, too.  There are a few explicit paintings at the Tomasulo, like the recent “Cut Piece No. 1”, and 8 by 10 inch of a scissors cutting through someone’s sleeve, which was inspired by Mazza’s reading that the first act of most torturers is to cut off the victim’s clothes.  But most of Mazza’s work implies a more psychic kind of violence, like the paintings of fingers crushing jelly doughnuts (the “Schadenfreude” series) or her paintings of gauze wrapped faces.

The scale of her work – many of the stretched-linen paintings she exhibits are nearly as deep as they are wide, so the picture almost seems painted on top of a neatly wrapped corsage box – contributes to the air of mystery it tries to convey. It’s often a prim kind of tease, like the peek off flesh out of the forest of gloved fingers in “Nuit Blanche No. 12.”  Mazza’s paintings make you lean in to catch the tiniest detail and then contemplate the larger implications of the details we see.  Like peering through a pinhole, it suggests far more information than it really provides.  And of course, the pictures wouldn’t really work if Mazza could not handle paint well enough to justify the inspection.

“I am originally from Virginia, and I started out as a much more painterly landscapist.” says Mazza, who received her MFA from Rutgers’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2001.  “But I found as I began to paint the figure and tried to concentrate on the emotional content of the work that the brushwork just had to become much tighter.  When you work painterly, you know, what mostly comes across is the paint.”

Mazza wants to tell, well, not stories exactly, but hints, anyway.  And so we get paintings like “Hiatus”, a 7 by 8 ½ inch picture of a hand and chin arching oddly over a bed sheet and pillow, as uncertain in its meaning weighted with emotional fret as any blank-faced, pig-tailed girl at a window by Vermeer.

Mazza often uses herself as a model, but she rarely paints what you might call a self-portrait, because we never see enough of any figure to catch a likeness.  We are left with broader, philosophical subjects, romances of the fragment, like the upper brow and drowning hair of “Ophelia No. 1” or the fugitive bookmark of a finger thrust into a closed tome in “Page”.

The deviltry is in her details.