[1] [2]

[3] [4]

1) "Assumption", o/c, 60 x 44", 1992.
2) "Falling Down", o/c, 60 x 44", 1996.
3) "Rising", o/c, 48 x 36", 1996.
4) "Aphrodite", o/c, 48 x 36", 1996.

by Nancy Kay Turner

(The Art Works, Riverside) Margaret Lazzari is a classically trained figurative painter who has been working for five years on a series of related works that gently explore feminist issues of beauty, power and self-knowledge. Using the body as metaphor, Lazzari picks as her model a large, African-American woman who has the bearing and charisma of a queen. Lazzari uses this same model in a number of works--some are updates of Renaissance paintings, other images are rooted in mythology.

The figure as it appears in most of the work is monumental--the sheer physicality of her lovingly rendered flesh, her calm gaze and bemused smile create a person to be reckoned with. Her body type fits in with the sixteenth- through nineteenth-century ideal of female beauty where "heavy" was considered substantial, "plump" considered pleasant, and "ample" a compliment. "Skinny" meant poor and "round" meant rich. In our own time this has become "One can never be too rich or too thin."

Lazzari creates a potent political statement with these deceptively simple images, not only by challenging standards of beauty but by injecting an African-American female into Western images that had excluded people of color.

However, Lazarri's work has become more spiritual and other-worldly in the last few years. Her figures are bathed in a glowing, almost supernatural light. In Aphrodite, Lazzari portrays her model dressed in timeless clothes sitting still, yet commanding attention with her inner power. She is surrounded by people whom we do not see; only their hands straining to touch her are in the picture. She is a modern day Goddess.

The real pleasure of these works, besides the healing nature of the imagery, is to be found in the gorgeously painted surfaces, the surprisingly elegant and rich shifts of color and the spontaneous line quality.

While these paintings are built around a very human and specific presence, Lazzari also shows paintings in which anonymous people are crowded together. Here there is no individuality; the subjects are involved in a struggle to situate themselves.

Unlike Robert Longo's early Men in the Cities series which served as visual metaphors for corporate wars, Lazzari's paintings entitled Falling and Rising are metaphors for the inevitable rollercoaster rhythms of contemporary life. The titles also suggest subtle religious themes--as in "falling" from grace, or God ascending or "rising" to heaven.

In Rising, we see only the naked legs of women of all ages in the act of jumping. Both the extraordinary light bathing the foreground and the unusual cropping contribute to the strength of this painting. Falling Down, which bookends this image (or vice versa), depicts a women on the ground, amidst a tangle of glowing legs. A palpable, magical golden light falls like a balm on the figures.

Like the reassuring and consoling light which gently caresses the figures in this series, the overall impression of this mature and masterful work is a healing peace.