News Column

Art Review: 'Mary M. Mazziotti: Recent Work' at Borelli-Edwards Galleries

September 4, 2014

By Kurt Shaw, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Sept. 04--You may know her work from her darkly humorous murals along Tito Way, Downtown. Or perhaps, from one of her many art exhibits in Pittsburgh, New York City and places beyond, including NordArt in Germany and the Emily Harvey Gallery in Venice.

Either way, her morbid sense of humor and equally witty artworks filled with gallows humor are gaining attention.

Since 1993, Lawrenceville-based artist Mary Mazziotti has concentrated on creating contemporary memento mori -- an embroidered outfit or cloth filled with symbols of mortality. Her fascination began after seeing an engraving of a 17th-century death crier wearing one.

In "Mary M. Mazziotti: Recent Work," on display at Borelli-Edwards Galleries in Lawrenceville, the artist explores our mortality.

"The intent of the work is to remind us that life is fragile and death is both inevitable and unpredictable," Mazziotti says.

Memento mori literally transcribes as "remember you will die." A very old genre of artwork, it dates at least to the Romans and reached the height of morbidity with the Victorians, who would make memorial pieces from a deceased loved one's hair or stage photographs of their fallen offspring in an era when childhood mortality rates were extremely high.

Despite the seriousness of the subject, Mazziotti likes to use wit and humor in the hope that her work will resonate with contemporary viewers.

Mazziotti's contemporary memento mori are made in a variety of mediums, from paintings and time-based installations to cut-paper silhouettes and embroidered textiles.

Her latest exhibit is composed entirely of the latter. That is, embroidered works on vintage textiles, such as napkins and pillowcases that already have embroidered embellishments that give them a dated look.

The homey nature of vintage textiles and embroidery seems an especially apt medium in which to contemplate death.

Take, for example, her latest series, "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," which is made up of Mazziotti's laboriously stitched embroidery on vintage pillowcases.

Featuring various texts taken from diverse sources such as poetry, Biblical verses and song lyrics, each is stitched along with some related illustrations. For example, on one pillowcase is embroidered the phrase "Time Devours All Things," which is a recorded proverb of the ages referred to in William Shakespeare's Sonnet XIX. To it, Mazziotti has added houseflies buzzing around the phrase to add to the notion of decay.

Another pillowcase has the phrase, "I am built of clay and must resolve to dust," which is a Biblical reference to Job 10:9 -- "Please remember that you've made me like clay and you'll return me to dust." To it, Mazziotti has added the skeletal hand of Death holding a feather duster and shaking it above the phrase.

Then, there is the pillowcase that reads "Fill your days with jollity, fill your nights with mirth." It refers to a contemporary poem by an unknown author that continues "... before the swinging scythe descends and ends your time on Earth."

"This series plays off the old bit of doggerel most of us learned as children," Mazziotti says. "There's always the possibility we will 'die before we wake.'

"These vintage pillowcases seemed the appropriate place to inscribe reminders of mortality," Mazziotti says. "The fabric might be thin and worn, displaying small stains and tears. This patina of entropy is yet another expression of memento mori. All things decay."

A series of several smaller embroidered works are included in the exhibit titled "Memento Mori Mottos."

"No Victorian parlor would have been complete without a framed motto, often worked in stitching, to exhort the viewer to commit to a more considered life," Mazziotti says. "These contemporary examples remind us that tempus can fugit (Latin phrase for 'time flies') in the snap of a finger."

Here, common phrases like "Kablooey," "Uh-Oh" and "Everything Must Go" underscore the finality of death. As does a phrase from "The Wizard of Oz" -- "You cursed brat! Look what you've done! I'm melting! Melting!"

"While 'Uh-Oh' pretty much sums it up, the famous last words of the Wicked Witch of the West are the paradigm of the wheel of fortune," Mazziotti says. "Just when you think life is good ..."

Mazziotti's comedic take on death make these works much easier to swallow.

And therein lies the message she wants her work to convey: As Mazziotti so aptly puts it, "Death is a fact of life, so why not have a sense of humor about it?"

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at


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Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)

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