Mary Mazziotti's "Domestic Death" | Program Notes

Mary Mazziotti's "Domestic Death"

by

comment

Because Americans frequently think about death only in terms of consumer products (funerals, tombstones, caskets), Mazziotti's cheekily direct approach in this little show at Lawrenceville's Borelli-Edwards Gallery is especially notable. Using humble embroidery, she's repurposed kitschy vintage domestic linens – most, I'd guess, from the middle 1900s -- as medieval-style reminders of mortality. Call it her bridge to the 17th century. (She was, after all, inspired by "Death Crier" engravings of the era.)

Mostly, Mazziotti does this by artfully stitching in death's heads, and other skeleton parts, into existing scenes. Thus, on "Baby Quilt," a chubby puppy's thought balloon houses Death himself; a teddy bear blowing a horn looks warily over his shoulder, where merry Death mirrors him. As it says along the hem of the little pink dress in the gallery's front window, just below the skull with knife and fork: "Time Devours All."

Zelig-like, Death pops up everywhere in these pieces, most displayed as wall-hangings. On a pair of Elvis pillowcases, the King (looking, one must admit, a little hydroencephalic) wails away with a white-pompadoured skeleton backup singer (skinnier than any Jordanaire) cavorting over his shoulder. "1935-1977," indeed. On another piece, a butterfly and caged bird take on new meaning when the big pocket watch between them sports a skeleton sitting merrily astride its hands.

Mazziotti plays especially well with the line between the thunderous foreboding and the playfulness of all this iconography, fairly summoning the carefree-cum-doomed spirit of her Dark Ages inspirations. "No man knows where the castle of King Death is," goes the inscription on a crimson cocktail dress. A little white sailor suit, embroidered with Death as a mermaid: "The sea is other-death and she is a mighty female the one who wins, the one who sucks us all up."

Mazziotti's technique is deceptively simple: It never becomes a one-liner. That's partly due to her sense of craft, the new ways she keeps finding to incorporate Death into these found objects. In "Dancing Peasants," for instance, a repeated floral pattern becomes a kicky red-and-green headpiece for a circuit of skulls.

Perhaps better still, she plays off the innocent (ignorant?) reference points of the kitsch works' originators. Interestingly, the technique is somewhat less comical when used in reference to cultures more distant from ours in time and space. Newly decked with bony denizens, the tablecloth "Mexico" (quite independently of the intentions with which it might have been purchased) can't help recalling that country's ongoing Day of the Dead celebration. Likewise with a Victorian-era barroom scene, and even an Old West-themed apron ("Chuckwagon"): We can imagine people of those times feeling closer to mortality, more cognizant of it -- as though by learning how to postpone death a little (or perhaps just to deny it a little more loudly), we had actually banished it.

Mazziotti (whose studio is in Lawrenceville, too) has long explored this topic. The first such exhibit I recall was a haunting piece (it was at Future Tenant, I think) that, also employing linens, recontextualized century-old photos of unclaimed corpses from the Allegheny County morgue. More in line with the newest offering, her contribution to the last-but-one Carnegie International was an hilarious comic strip starring Death.

The Borelli-Edwards show formally closes Sat., Aug 1 (though the owner says that after the gallery's week-long summer break, it will be viewable again in mid-Augst). Its kicker is Mazziotti's "Homage to Damien Hirst," a series of model skulls decked out in costume jewlery. The baubles dripping from the eyesockets, like the tears of a repentant dying miser, are an especially nice touch nodding to the artist who once made a jeweled creation that fetched the highest price for an artwork ever. Sic transit, Damien baby.

Add a comment