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Windows: Mixed-Media

Paintings by Alan Mazzetti

To Feb. 12 at Rivaga Art & Framing

Artist Alan Mazzetti lives on a dead-end street in the slowly gentrifying working-class neighborhood of Bernal Heights in southern San Francisco. The location is ideal for Mazzetti, for two reasons. One is financial: His home, he says, is in “the only affordable part of San Francisco.” The other is strictly artistic: Bernal Heights allows him easy access to three other colorful, and sometimes slovenly, San Francisco neighborhoods that provide him with impressions for his work.

Mazzetti pays the bills by churning out illustrations for magazines both well-known (Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping) and obscure (Minnesota Medicine, CIO). But whenever he finds the time, Mazzetti slings his 35 mm camera over his shoulder and heads out into the city’s corridors of ethnic commerce—Chinatown, the Italian North Beach, and the Latino-flavored Mission District.

There, Mazzetti scours storefront windows for unexpected lettering, compelling images, or weird counterpoints. “Antique and junk stores are always pretty good,” Mazzetti explained during a brief Washington stop to install his Windows exhibition at Rivaga Art & Framing. “I try to find things that are not too visually complex, that have a definite cultural aspect to them, and maybe reflect the neighborhood and the consumer society,” he says.

Whenever something catches Mazzetti’s eye, he takes a snapshot of it. Once he develops his film, Mazzetti searches through his assortment of images for ones that he likes and blows them up with a color photocopier. Then he traces the outline of the image onto Masonite or plywood and adds some preliminary brushstrokes. Next, Mazzetti inserts a sticky layer of heat-transfer material between the tracing and the color copy, making a sandwich. When the two are again separated, the tracing is left with a coating of toner residue. Mazzetti then sands, scrapes, and paints over the image, sometimes changing colors or blotting out unwanted objects. Start to finish, the process takes about five days.

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So what comes out of it? Rice Christ features a shop window that juxtaposes sacks of rice with religious figurines. Similarly, Holy Minnie pairs an image of Minnie Mouse with religious items from a Latino store in the Mission District. In another work, a Charlie McCarthy-like dummy sprawls incongruously over a window display in a rug store. And another piece features an image of Marilyn Monroe presiding over a cluttered junk-shop window.

If consumerism is a defining boomer theme, Mazzetti, 49, fits right in. Mazzetti moved from his hometown of Santa Barbara to San Francisco in 1973 to attend art school, where he studied advertising, graphic design, and illustration. He credits his resulting magazine gigs with sharpening his appreciation for consumer kitsch.

The kitschy side of Mazzetti’s art—his half-indulgent, half-jaundiced view of consumer detritus—draws from the same well that nourished the work of Andy Warhol. It takes little effort to picture the man with the white mop silkscreening a matrix of Rice Christs or Holy Minnies. But Mazzetti’s work also picks up on several other threads of modern art.

Mazzetti isn’t the first artist who has looked into window displays for found material. Decades apart, Eugene Atget and Brassai photographed the shop windows of Paris. Walker Evans once shot a memorable image of a small-town photographic studio’s window filled with head shots of local kids. In the ’50s and ’60s, photographer Aaron Siskind captured images of lettering on city walls. And Lee Friedlander took countless pictures of urban windows, paying as much attention to what was reflected as to what was being offered for sale.

All of those artists are photographers; fewer painters have trawled for material in windows, although Edward Hopper at times seemed to be fascinated with them, or at least with the moods of the people just beyond the plate glass. The one painter whose work shows a great affinity with Mazzetti’s is Robert Cottingham, who is best known for his stunning, hyper-realistic images of old-fashioned neon signs found in urban neighborhoods. Cottingham’s subject matter—like Mazzetti’s—is something that can be gathered only through the intense study of one’s own cityscape. But Cottingham’s work differs from Mazzetti’s in one crucial respect: Whereas Cottingham’s work involves the meticulous reproduction of intricate designs, Mazzetti’s decisively shuns photorealism.

Indeed, the look of Mazzetti’s work owes much less to Cottingham than it does to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Like Rauschenberg, Mazzetti is attracted to off-kilter jumbles of items, as well as to the use of multiple techniques—painting, sanding, drawing—within the same artwork. Johns portrayed familiar objects whose very ordinariness demanded that viewers pay attention to the nature of his brushwork, rather than to the subject matter. Similarly, Mazzetti’s images urge the viewer to look more closely at the way he portrays—and modifies—the colors and shapes in his windows.

If so many 20th-century artists have trodden the same ground as Mazzetti, why pay any attention to his work? The value of Mazzetti’s art comes not from its sheer originality (the value so treasured by modernists) nor its purposeful pastiche (so celebrated by postmodernists). Rather, Mazzetti steers the difficult course between these two impulses, exploring his artistic heritage without slavish devotion to the popular philosophy of the moment. CP