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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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