Un­cov­er­ing the power of masks

At this ex­hibit, they are bill­boards for cre­ativ­ity

The Denver Post - - LIFE& CULTURE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

The new “Mask” ex­hi­bi­tion at the Vicki Myrhen Gallery sug­gests that we have a choice in how we get through the cur­rent pan­demic that is up­end­ing our lives: We can en­dure it, or we can in­dulge in it.

We can wal­low in our fear and ag­gra­va­tion or we can grasp on to the pos­si­bil­i­ties it some­times places right be­fore our eyes. Or, as this ex­hibit at­taches to sym­bol­i­cally, those things be­low our eyes in the face cov­er­ings we are all man­dated to wear now.

Show­cas­ing work from 41 artists who prac­tice a range of dis­ci­plines, the ex­hibit trans­forms those masks from muz­zles to mega­phones, en­cour­ag­ing us to think of them not as bur­dens, but as bill­boards for self- ex­pres­sion and av­enues for cre­ativ­ity.

In one sense, “Mask” is a fash­ion show fea­tur­ing de­signer looks con­ceived for the ac­ces­sory du jour. The wares in this pa­rade of ap­parel come in a range of cuts, col­ors, fab­rics and styles.

You like fringe? Frankie Toan’s Lone Ranger- like cow­boy mask, ti­tled, “The OP,” gives it to you in gold.

Pre­fer silk or cot­ton? Dorothy Grant’s “raven” mask em­ploys both fab­rics, printed with ref­er­ences to the raven, a sym­bol of strength and wis­dom for the Haida

Na­tion, which she is part of.

How about lace? Tif­fany Mathe­son’s elab­o­rate mask starts at the nose and mouth and ex­tends into an en­tire head­dress. It’s made of var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als, but it hangs soft and sheer like a veil.

Of course, the ti­tle of Mathe­son’s piece, “Mo­mento Mori,” hints at some­thing

more se­ri­ous than haute cou­ture, trans­lat­ing into some­thing akin to “re­mem­ber you must die.” It doesn’t let us for­get that amid all this dream­ing there is a deadly dis­ease rav­aging the world.

That du­al­ity de­fines the masks in this show. They can be fun to look at, but they of­ten come with a catch. Take, for ex­am­ple, Cristina Rodo’s “Covidus,” which is made of wool and takes the form of an oc­to­pus that has at­tached it­self un­re­lent­ingly right on the cen­ter of a face. There’s a punch­line there, though it gives way to the fact that masks ac­tu­ally can feel as if they are stuck to us, whether we like it or not.

Or Michael Espinoza’s “How to Sur­vive a Plague,” made of plas­tic con­dom wrap­pers, which is both amus­ing and fore­bod­ing, making clear con­nec­tions be­tween COVID- 19 and the last ma­jor health cri­sis the world faced, the HIV/ AIDS pan­demic, which con­tin­ues to af­flict mil­lions of peo­ple.

Or Liz Sex­ton’s well- crafted, pa­pier- mâché “Por­cu­pine,” which takes the form of a pointy, puffed- up fish and cov­ers the en­tire head. It’s art­ful, al­most beau­ti­ful, but pro­hibits the wearer from show­ing any emo­tion, frus­trat­ingly di­min­ish­ing our fa­cial ex­pres­sions like all masks do.

This same idea is em­bod­ied exquisitel­y in Ash­ley Fra­zier’s “Glass Mask,” an el­e­gant face cov­er­ing stud­ded in shards of glass. It glis­tens like a beaded gown in a ball­room — though you wouldn’t want to dance with it.

Even the masks that ref­er­ence art his­tory — Kate Mar­ling’s “Clas­si­cal Sculp­ture Mask,” which looks like a mod­i­fied Michelan­gelo; or Mathias Kres­mer’s “Arcim­boldo,” which is dec­o­rated in fruits in the style of famed 16th cen­tury, Ital­ian painter Giuseppe Arcim­boldo — ap­pear plas­tered- on or over­bear­ing.

In some ways, “Mask” feels slammed- to­gether. It’s not fine­tuned the way most art ex­hi­bi­tions are. The masks are dis­played sim­ply, on shelves in­stalled at eye- level, and the ob­jects are all po­si­tioned on iden­ti­cal man­nequin heads. There’s no rhythm, just the goods.

There’s also a lack of sig­nage. In­stead, gallery vis­i­tors are pointed to a QR code, which al­lows them to down­load a guide on their phones where, with some ef­fort, they can learn the names of artists and the me­dia they used.

That is a safety mea­sure, of course, meant to re­duce touch­ing and germ- spread­ing. The gallery is on the Univer­sity of Den­ver cam­pus, which ap­pears to be tak­ing safety pre­cau­tions se­ri­ously; masks are every­where and ac­cess to build­ings is lim­ited to avoid crowds.

But the lack of pol­ish works in the show’s fa­vor. It feels im­me­di­ate and ur­gent and un­der­scores just how big a chal­lenge it was to put this ex­hi­bi­tion to­gether, on a tight time sched­ule and amid the chaos of a pan­demic, a task ac­com­plished by the gallery’s Lauren Har­tog, work­ing with a team of grad­u­ate stu­dents.

The gallery it­self, usu­ally re­served ex­clu­sively for ex­hibi

tions, has been com­man­deered of late by school of­fi­cials who are des­per­ate for class­room space as class sizes have been re­duced. For that rea­son, the ex­hi­bi­tion is open to the pub­lic only on Fri­day, Satur­day and Sun­day af­ter­noons.

The pro­vi­sional na­ture of the dis­play also helps to make it an ap­pro­pri­ate venue for masks that fall on the more post- apoc­a­lyp­tic side of things. The ur­gency, for

ex­am­ple, height­ens the ef­fects of Serge At­tuk­wei Clottey’s un­ti­tled mask that ap­pears to be fash­ioned — out of hys­te­ria and in a hurry — from the mouths of multi- col­ored plas­tic jugs. It mag­ni­fies the sci- fi edge of Tracy Tomko’s “BYOO ( Bring Your Own Oxy­gen),” which is made of clear tubes that con­tain plants meant to pro­duce their own breath­able air — just in case the wearer needs it.

Over­all, the ex­hi­bi­tion man­ages to walk a fine line be­tween en­ter­tain­ment and so­cial commentary on the state of the world. All of those things that have come to be true about mask- wear­ing — the po­lit­i­cal or pa­tri­otic as­pects, the ne­ces­sity and an­noy­ance and res­ig­na­tion of it all — are man­i­fested here.

The ex­hibit might seem friv­o­lous to some peo­ple, both to those who have suf­fered loss or ill­ness due to the coro­n­avirus, and to those who feel put upon by hav­ing to wear a mask at all.

But it also serves as a bit of coach­ing at a time when we need it. Masks and other pre­cau­tions are go­ing to be a part of our lives for a while. We can fight that or we can find a few ways to tol­er­ate it with hu­mil­ity and hu­man­ity. This show fo­cuses on masks, but it re­minds us that there are peo­ple be­hind them, hin­dered by in­con­ve­nience but still able to de­fine the mo­ment on our own terms.

Pro­vided by the Vicki Myhren Gallery

Serge At­tuk­wei Clottey’s mask is made from wire and re­cy­cled plas­tic jugs. It’s part of the “Mask” ex­hibit at the Vicki Myhren Gallery at DU.

Pho­tos pro­vided by the Vicki Myhren Gallery

Scot­tie Burgess’ “For Our Un­seen Smiles.” ( Note: All the masks in the ex­hibit are dis­played on man­nequin heads, not on peo­ple.)

“Mask” con­tin­ues through Dec. 1 at the Vicki Myhren Gallery on the Univer­sity of Den­ver cam­pus.

Jon O'Brien, pro­vided by the Vicki Myhren Gallery

Liz Sex­ton’s “Por­cu­pine.”

Tiany Mathe­son, “Me­mento Mori.”

Fre­jya Sewell’s “Food.”

Ash­ley Fra­zie’s piece in “Mask” is made from a stan­dard face mask and bro­ken glass.

Christina Rodo’s “Covidus” mask art­work is made from nee­dle- felted wool.

Mathias Kres­mer’s “Arcim­boldo,” 2012.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.