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jose rodeiro | courtesy of parida suwannewisch

Over the centuries, flesh has enticed artists of every kind — painters, sculptors, and photographers — to capture its essence. From the Venus of Willendorf to Lucian Freud, artists have responded to call, depicting every part of the human body, from the infirm wattle of an old man’s turkey neck to the taut muscles of young boys in Caravaggio paintings.

And now flesh is the subject of a big new exhibition, Flesh Art, at New Jersey City University (NJCU). The show is curated by NJCU art history professor José Rodeiro (at right), and it features the work of 12 artists, including Joan Semmel, Ben Jones, Babs Reingold and Jen Mazza.

“The premise of the show is that human flesh can be an aesthetic motif on its own,” Rodeiro says. “I hope that those who attend the exhibit will leave with a renewed perspective on what flesh is and what it can mean.”

Rodeiro told us more recently as he made some final preparations for the exhibition, which has its opening reception this Thursday.

William Coronado

Matthew Lahm

Tell us more about the show, and how it came about.

I first became involved in Flesh Art by viewing and considering the artworks and the ideas of Matthew Lahm, when he was still one of my graduate students. His extraordinary work and ideas intrigued me.

For example, at the current show, you will see a ten-foot painting called Body View 1, which depicts part of a human body. By only showing a small part of the body within ten foot surface, the image is utterly mysterious, because the model’s identity, gender, and the actual part of the body displayed are unknown. Through this unusual “hyper-figurative” approach, the flesh itself becomes the subject of the work.

Suddenly, I realized that Lahm was part of a coterie of urban artists who used flesh/skin as their primary subject matter via this ambiguous visual-artistic handling of the body that I called “flesh art;” I began to notice a trend in contemporary metropolitan-area figurative art traceable to pioneers like Joan Semmel.

In the early 1970s, Semmel created innovative flesh-based paintings, which made her a pivotal figure in the development of flesh art. She seems to have influenced numerous artist like Lahm, Coronado, Cruz, Sandra Silva, Mazza, and Rogeberg, and others, whose images echo many tendencies found in her work. We are fortunate to have three never-before-seen paintings by her featured in the show. Flesh Art points to what I think is an evolution in 21st Century figurative art and where it can go in the future: amplifying parts and fragments of figures as subjects in and of themselves.

Hanneline Rogeberg

John Hardy "Church on 31st St"

Jen Mazza

Joan Semmel | Body and Sole

What is attracting this new generation of figurative artists to investigate flesh, and why now?

Perhaps it is that cosmopolitan artists feel that their core humanity is under attack from hyper-technology, fanatical dogmas, war, economic uncertainty — and perhaps that art itself is under threat.

Who is in the show, and what can viewers expect to see?

I have already discussed Joan Semmel and Matthew Lahm. Also featured are NJCU’s eminent retired professor Ben Jones, who is a prominent figure in African-American art, and NJCU professor and acclaimed sculptor Herb Rosenberg. The exhibition includes works by Rutgers professor and internationally active painter, Hanneline Rogeberg. There are strikingly visceral installation and multimedia works by Babs Reingold of Bayonne; intimate oil paintings by Jen Mazza of Brooklyn; cityscapes incorporating flesh in media by acclaimed painter John Hardy of New York; and video art by Giuseppe Satta of Italy. Furthermore, there are exceptional and distinctive images of human flesh (and innovative flesh-based compositions) by three other exceptional and gifted emerging artists (and like Lahm, NJCU alumni) Williams Coronado, Sandra Silva and Olga Cruz.

Willem de Kooning, Woman, I, 1950-52, oil on canvas

As soon as I heard the title of the exhibition, Flesh Art, I pictured the painting Woman, 1, by artist Willem de Kooning. When I mentioned the name of the show to my girlfriend, she assumed it was of tattooing.

This is merely my own aesthetic-opinion, but I do not immediately think of human flesh or skin when I see de Kooning’s Woman, 1. De Kooning’ s paint-application is very sensuous, which is the only thing about his work that I consider to be fleshy.

Honestly, tattoos are not an issue in the current Flesh Art show, because tattoos modify, hide, or visually change flesh and skin. Thus, tattoos tend to transmogrify, decorate, camouflage, or they add ancillary symbolic iconological meaning to skin, which distracts from the actual tone, texture, and fleshiness of “natural” skin or flesh.

I had another thought nipping at the heels of Woman, 1, and it was pornography. “Flesh Art” sounds dirty, and I ashamed of myself for thinking in this manner. As an artist, I like to think of myself as progressive, tolerant, and open-minded — but occasionally I am not. Did you intend the title of the show to be provocative or am I way off base?

The original intention of the Flesh Art show was never to be pornographic or provocative, [but] it could come across that way because flesh can be so taboo. The title is merely descriptive and represents 12 exceptional artists who exalt in seeing and depicting human flesh — artists who are fascinated by human flesh – as human flesh. In my opinion, none of the selected Flesh Art artists pander to prurient interest nor do they endeavor to arouse lascivious curiosity.

Lisa Yuskavage, Day, 1994, Oil on linen, 77 x 62 inches

Terry Rodgers, Continental Drift, 2006, oil on linen, 152cm x 229cm

JOHN CURRIN, Rotterdam, 2006, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches

So, according to your definition, flesh art would not include painters such as Lisa Yuskavage, Terry Rodgers, and John Currin? Am I correct?

Yes, because flesh art is far more concerned with mysterious parts of bodies, instead of full-figure grand-manner depictions. Flesh art is not concerned with scintillating and pseudo-pornographic calculated depictions of hyper-seductive, manipulated, erotic and embellished dehumanized figures.

The nude is the foundation of Western art. However, as an Irish-Catholic male born and raised in a modest ranch house in New Jersey, I am not wholly comfortable with the human body in a state of undress—unless I am watching two men inflict and take punishment inside a boxing ring. What do you hope the viewer takes away from the work in this exhibition?

Within the context of art history, representations of human figures in the nude or naked are recurrent subjects. In fact, the history of art is saturated with astounding depictions of flesh from Classical Greek and Roman antiquity; Hindu and Buddhist artistic traditions; or as exemplified throughout Western art from the Renaissance onward. As a theme in art, unclothed human subjects are widespread and rooted deep in art history.

The artworks in the Flesh Art show describe the body as a medium through which the mind thinks and feels. As a result, flesh art imagery presents human skin/flesh as a layer through which the human body meets the world in which it lives. Hence, according to this view, people (in every way) truly inhabit their skin. Moreover, on a visceral level, both affectionate people as well as sadists are drawn to flesh, erotically desiring the skin of others. Therefore, both the human body and its flesh are noetic or intuitive vehicles for processing and possessing existence. Thus, skin functions as a “self-reflecting” subject that reaffirms and embodies the self, as a mirror image of our “being.” As the old-adage warns, “Beauty is only skin-deep.” Likewise, skin — as the largest organ of the human body — encases the body.

Art history is stacked with men. As a viewer, I have usually seen flesh — usually the flesh of nude women — depicted by male artists. Do female painters approach the body in a different manner than their male counterparts? If so, what does their work communicate about the body?

The old distinctions and obsolete hegemony between male artists and female artists are not central to contemporary flesh art, since most 21st Century urban pioneers of flesh art have been women artists. Yet, the key issue is that flesh art does not depict the full grand manner figure. Despite historical figural traditions that reveal nude or naked human bodies from head to toe, 21st Century flesh art images often portray only portions or sections of human bodies wherein strong emphasis is placed on ample corporeal surface-effects that meticulously define each body’s accentuation of flesh (or skin). Generally, the sheer veneer of flesh is not the main aesthetic focal point; instead what is often stressed is the exterior fascia, revealing a modular or sectionalized surface façade that may well be smooth, sinewy, vivacious, undulating, rough, coarse, or expressing countless other surface possibilities (even within one piece). Consequently, each work offers a crucial section of a human being’s body.

Babs Reingold "Hung Out No4"

De Kooning once said, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” For me, oil paint is particularly suited to capturing the vivacity of flesh. However, not all artists use oil, and not all artists paint. Artist Babs Reingold is featured in the exhibition. She has used encaustic, silk organza, animal skin and human hair in her installations. What can other mediums communicate about flesh that oil paint cannot?

The diverse artists exhibiting in the Flesh Art show do not exclusively rely on oil paint to attain their facsimiles of flesh or skin, although several do use oil paint. On the other hand, the show also features artists working with charcoal on skin, scratching and machining onto aluminum, using photography or doing wet-acrylic colorfield-painting like Ben Jones — or like Babs Reingold, using encaustic, silk organza, animal skin and human hair. The multimedia nature of the show broadens the artistic examination of human flesh on many levels.

Art has the power to reveal our uneasiness about the body. Does art that reveals our uneasiness about the body have the power to heal it?

I think there is an element of redemption of flesh in this NJCU exhibit, in that flesh art liberates the nude from social presuppositions, prejudices, and peripheral narratives that can taint our points of view about it. Flesh Art shows how artists can communicate a variety of meanings through flesh, which are simultaneously experiential and conceptual. Human skin/flesh is our connection to the world and — as a person living in the world and as a person devoted to art — pondering the significance of this “natural” bond to me is valuable and worthwhile.

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Jen Mazza | Courtesy of the artist

Artist Jen Mazza has carved out a career by painting pictures of slabs of human flesh-the female kind. To get an idea of her work, walk over to the nearest Dunkin Donuts, locate the plumpest jelly donut you can find, and take a bite-watch the grape filling spurt, ooze, and drip onto your hands, between your fingers, and down your shirt sleeve.

Jen is an artist who appreciates the sensuality of oil paint. Of late, she has switched gears-flowers and chintz have replaced the female body.

When Jen is not painting in her studio, she teaches at New Jersey City University, and makes a weekly pilgrimage to Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art, will showcase a new series of Jen’s paintings in her first solo show at the gallery. Aljira is located on 591 Broad St., in Newark. The opening reception of The Hothouse is Thursday, Nov. 18, from 6 to 9 p.m. The exhibition will be on view until Jan. 8.

I recently caught up with Jen to discuss her new exhibition and the role teaching plays inside the painter’s studio.

Jen Mazza, Orange Ranunculus, oil on canvas, 2010

Hi Jen. Tell me about yourself-who are you, what do you do, and how long have you been an artist?

Hmm – Where to start? I was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up west of the city in rural Virginia. Being a painter is probably one of my longest lasting traits. The earliest oil painting I remember doing was when I was four years old. Don’t get me wrong; I have the distinct impression it looked like a 4 year old’s painting. I didn’t consider being an artist my calling. At that stage I think I wanted to be an astronaut. Later on I yearned to be a veterinarian. At some point I realized there was no language I spoke as well as the visual and admitted to being what I already was.

When did you begin to paint and draw?

As I mentioned, I started pretty early as most kids do, only I did not stop when I got to that crucial age where one realizes the striking difference between what’s on the paper and what you thought you were drawing. My grandmother was an oil painter and had always given lessons from her home. She got me started, and probably had a lot to do with keeping me going: feeding my paint supply and teaching me about seeing.

Let’s discuss your upcoming show The Hothouse at Aljira in Newark. How did you become involved in this exhibition, and what work will be on view?

This show is part of a new series of exhibitions designed to showcase the work of Aljira Emerge graduates. I was part of the Emerge Program in 2001. After seeing some of my new work, Victor Davson, director of Aljira, asked me if I would be interested in showing it. I took his offer of a “project space” quite literally, so this will be my first exhibition to be conceived as an installation. It will include not only paintings but also other elements to add to viewer’s experiences of time and space.

Jen Mazza, Pink Roses in White Vase, oil on canvas, 2010

On the surface, The Hothouse-your new series of paintings-appears to be a departure from your previous bodies of work. How does this series compare to your earlier work, and what were the paths that led you to flowers, vases, and chintz?

These new paintings have a lot in common with the style and palette of my previous work. They are still very gooey but the subject matter – well yeah, very different. Though I imagine that folks had some doubts about my mental state when I was painting the figurative, seemingly more psychologically intense images that I am recognized for, it is the flower paintings that provoke me into look at myself in the mirror and asking, “have you gone insane??”

Where did this work come from? It has been, as you say, a path, not always a direct path, but I generally find my direction by moving. The flowers and chintz followed from the series I called “Self Deceit” which I put together as a solo project at the Jersey City Museum. “Self Deceit” came after a six-month period of “painter’s block”. My question was: how had I lied to myself? What rules and limitations had I created in my process? Did they, should they still apply? Or had they become arbitrary limits, a constraint on progress? After that things just opened up. Anything could be a subject.

From your Web site, I see that Jean Renoir’s film “Grand Illusion” (1937) played a minor role in the development of The Hothouse. What attracted you to this film, and has cinema influenced your other work?

Well, it is a beautiful film. Perhaps Jean inherited his father’s eye. Lately I have been thinking a lot about Time, thinking of ways to condense, preserve or encapsulate the experience of Time. In painting one must play time out spatially – like the Cubists did through faceting, the Futurists through multiplication, and as Picasso continued to do beyond analytical cubism with subtle incongruence of space. Film time is more straightforward, it deals with time the way we experience it – as duration, a shifting succession of images. I am pleased to say that The Hothouse will actually feature my first “film”.

Can you tell us more about the film? Do you see yourself transitioning into film like Kathryn Bigelow and Julian Schnabel?

As I mentioned, I have been thinking about ways of incorporating time and this is a large focus of The Hothouse exhibition. There are lots ways of building time into a painting – from use of space, to mark making and repetition to even a choice of subjects – but a painting remains a still image. Film is obviously also composed of still images – but sequentially they create a duration. The “film” I have made is a loop of still images of a static image: basically an image of a painting on a wall. There is no movement present other than the flickering of the film and the whirr and rattling of the projector. It is a metronome that marks and measures the passage of time.

I don’t think I will leave off painting anytime soon. I see film as another means of saying what I want to say. I don’t think I have an interest in creating narratives; I am more intrigued by the idea of creating filmic paintings.

Jen Mazza, Pinks and Chintz, oil on canvas, 2010

I’m intrigued with the way you juggle your professional life. You have a successful career, numerous awards, critical recognition, and exhibit on a regular basis. What’s your secret?

I am not sure there is a secret to it. You give up some things, you get others. Though I try not to be too much of a hermit, mainly I focus on painting, on what comes next. I paint, I read, I look – I am hungry for insights, hungry for the thing that will open up some new door in perception. I am ambitious to solve the problems I set for myself – this generally keeps me going even when the juggling is slowing the process down.

What are you reading and where do look at art?

At the moment I am reading a lot of French authors: Georges Perec, Jean Phillipe Toussaint, and Henri Bergson. I look at art just about everywhere. I probably spend the most time at the Met as there are so many favorite paintings to visit and revisit. (I am often there at least once a week.)

Painters such as David Hockney, Elizabeth Peyton, Kehinde Wiley, John Currin, and Gerhard Richter make tons of money. They are not most painters. Most painters are poor. Jen, what steps have you taken to sustain your career-especially in light of the recent economic downturn?

Making paintings, one can periodically trade them for money, but needs dictate that I spend a lot of my time teaching (usually about 4 days a week) that gets me out of myself but also keeps me out of the studio. I try to integrate the different parts – though I have yet to feel productive sitting on the Light Rail.

Jen Mazza, Dead Roses in Glass, oil on canvas, 2010 You earned a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Art from Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University). What made you choose this institution to study painting, and how did graduate school inform your work in the studio-both then and now?

Rutgers has a strong conceptual and feminist program. I felt I needed to get my brain up to date more than I needed instruction in painting, so I made my choice. My direction was sympathetic with the school’s so I am not sure I wouldn’t have ended up making similar work eventually – but I think Mason Gross’s strong performance art focus definitely had an influence on the work I have made since. Up until the present body of work I would begin each series with a performative element that I then transitioned and transcribed into painting. Like performance it is about the process and about the body.

Which Grease Truck is your favorite, and why?

I’m more of a diner gal.

In addition to being a painter, you are also a professor. You teach painting and drawing at New Jersey City University. How long have you worked at NJCU, and what role does it play in the creative community of Jersey City, Hudson County, and the region?

I have been working at NJCU since 2004. The school first came to my attention when I saw a great exhibition of student drawings from Ben Jones’ classes at the Sumei Art Center in Newark. I think NJCU does great work in training young artists and engaging them with the art world. And because my classes frequently have not only future artists but future accountants, biologists, criminal studies majors amongst others I have an awareness of what an important role the university has in connecting non-artists, amateurs, with the JC, NJ and NY art scenes. As an artist I can say there is nothing better than an educated viewer. And as a teacher there is nothing more rewarding than when a student makes a connection – either out in the world or in themselves. Art does both.

Has your experience as a professor influenced your decisions in the studio?

Definitely. When I teach the class I teach myself. Not only does teaching add to my experience with various mediums but it also has done much to make me more eloquent about my process and my work.

What’s your favorite part of being an artist?

Starting a painting.

What’s your least favorite part of being an artist?

Starting a painting.

Jen Mazza, Rose on Pink and Gray, oil on canvas, 2010

What three pieces of advice would you give to an artist just starting out their career?

For the first bit of advice I am just the conduit: the artist Jim Hodges once told me to pay attention to my attractions. I think it is important to notice what you notice. It is the best way to learn about yourself as an artist. The next thing you need, as an artist, is a dialog – engage with other makers. Find others who speak your language. Third – feed your brain: read, look at art, see, and strive to know.

What is your favorite diner? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?

The first time I went to JC I remember driving back and forth hopelessly lost. I can’t remember how many times I passed the Miss America Diner before I pulled into the parking lot and went in. I still stop in for hot coffee and egg on a roll on those cold winter mornings on the way to class. Speaking of Jersey City coffee I always seem to have the best when I am with my friend Gene. Whether we share a pot in his kitchen surrounded by his paintings and drawings or drink it while tearing croissants at Madame Claude’s, it always tastes great.

If you had to paint one person, place, object or thing in Jersey City, what would it be, and why?

Perhaps I spend too much time underground, but there is nothing more interesting to me than looking at people, and no better place to stare than on the Path train. I am always mentally drawing while I stand on station platforms or as the train trundles from station to station. I am always amazed at the diversity of age, shape, color, experience, consciousness or unconsciousness. So many stories. There was one day I introduced myself to a young theater student somewhere below / between Journal Square and Grove Street and he became the model for entire series of paintings.

Jen Mazza in studio | Courtesy of Jerry McCrea/Star-Ledger

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