Face Time: Masks, Animal to Video
January 11, 2008
Art Review | 'Mask'
The mask is one of the most basic and recognizable of all forms, and for good reason. One way early humans made sense of the universe was to personify its forces, and the most visible form of personification was the face. Masks have long been central to religious rituals, serving as tools of transformation and bridges to the spirit world. They have figured in ceremonies intended to ensure fertility and raise the dead, make crops grow and rain fall, kill enemies, ward off evil and cure sickness. They have been used by soldiers and celebrators of Lent, astronauts and action heroes, hockey players and fencers, firefighters and welders.
The ubiquity of the mask, regardless of time, place or purpose, is the impetus behind “Mask,” a sprawling show at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea. Subtitled “an exhibition of historic masks and contemporary works curated in collaboration with Joseph G. Gerena Fine Art,” this gathering of more than 40 masks and hoods, and more than 30 works in sculpture, video and photography, is a mishmash of cultures and functions in which old and older tend to dominate. This can mean an American firefighter’s goofy-looking smoke hood from around 1900; a carved and painted wood exorcism mask from 19th-century Sri Lanka; or a terra-cotta jaguar/man mask from Ecuador (700-300 B.C).
These and about 40 other masks from sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, premodern Europe, turn-of-the-century America and several parts of Asia do most of the showstopping here. All were provided by Mr. Gerena, a private dealer who seems to have an excellent eye and, along with Mr. Cohan and his staff, has orchestrated an installation full of interesting cross-references and juxtapositions.
The show is also commendable for not being loaded with the gallery’s artists; only 4 of the 32 contemporary works here are from Team Cohan. This includes the opening salvo, a riveting video by Yinka Shonibare that may be one of the best things he has ever done. It shows a highly stylized masked ball in which the guests wear 18th-century garments made from Mr. Shonibare’s distinctive Euro-African fabrics, which is not new for him. But in this case he has used a combination of sound and movement to strip a minuetlike dance down to a tribal, almost animalistic ritual while still leaving its mannered veneer intact.
Beside the door to the video gallery there is an Oddfellows hoodwink from early-20th-century America. A small, neat variation on the masks seen in Mr. Shonibare’s video, it combines a leather eye mask and eyeglasses. It looks like something Amelia Earhart might have worn, except that the eyeglass lenses have little hinged covers that were raised and lowered as the Freemasons’ initiation rites progressed.
In the main gallery there is a lively interchange among historic masks from different cultures, with intermittent input from contemporary works. First, a row of seven masks confounds expectations. An 18th- to 19th-century skull mask from the Tibetan Sherdukpen people of northern India seems made to order for a Mexican Day of the Dead festival, while what looks like an African monkey mask is actually from Nepal.
The show emphasizes these transcultural twists and turns. A 19th-century Italian carnival mask made of painted papier-mâché has much in common with a demonic mask of a Tibetan king used in ceremonial dances in 18th- or 19th-century Bhutan. (It’s made of the same material.) A pale, moonlike mask with a woebegone expression and a pale, angular, grinning visage next to it — both in carved, painted wood — might almost belong to the same comedic drama. Yet the moon mask is Korean, for satiric dances; the angular one is Swiss, a witch’s mask for winter festivals.
Many of the masks in this part of the exhibition are feats of construction and conjuring. Consider a spirit mask from Papua New Guinea used in male initiation rites; it is made mostly of tapa cloth, reeds, grasses and seed pods, with its conical hat, wide ears and long, wolflike snout toothed with sharp nails. Or an Eskimo shaman’s mask made of wood, wire and feathers. Its stern face, with the black goatee and curled mustache of a dime-novel villain, is encircled by two rings of twig from which tiny hands and feet sprout. It seems to orbit toward us, getting bigger every second.
A Yup’ik caribou-walrus transformation mask from the Yukon combines the features of both creatures and uses real walrus whiskers. In contrast is the stylized gentleness of a nearby mask of Tudigong, sometimes called the Chinese sun god, with its wise, wrinkled forehead in carved wood and its flowing horsehair beard.
When it comes to contemporary art, masks aren’t what they used to be as objects, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less potent in effect. The exception on the physical front is a remarkable object by the artist-rapper Rammellzee that channels Japanese face armor and its more recent descendant Darth Vader while maintaining a streetwise, found-object funkiness all its own. (It is one of several that Rammellzee has made and wears while performing.)
A large photograph of a dark mask that turns out to be by Cindy Sherman fits in so well that, initially, it doesn’t even seem contemporary. Next to it a similar ambiguity radiates from a large color photograph of Nick Cave, the performance and costume artist extraordinaire, shown here with his face framed in a thick oval of tightly wound fibers that could be an ethnographic object or a process-oriented sculpture.
The impact of masks increases when contemporary art turns to themes like identity or gender, as well as to certain current events. Hans Haacke echoes the Abu Ghraib images with a photograph of a man wearing a hood made from the starred portion of the American flag. Closer to the art world, Miriam Berkley pays tribute to the subversive Guerrilla Girls collective with a portrait of one of its founding members, known as Frida Kahlo, wearing the group’s signature gorilla mask. And Jürgen Klauke makes a large mural of news photos dating from 1972 to 2000, showing images of hooded heads, a kind of rogues’ gallery that evokes a nightmarish history of hijackings, kidnappings, bank robberies and terrorism.
But masks can also be subtle things in the hands of contemporary artists, little more than a hint of something not quite natural. This is the case in a photograph that Gillian Wearing made of herself in a mask of her mother’s face taken from a youthful photograph. Ms. Wearing seems a bit stiff but otherwise normal — until you see the telltale holes for the eyes.
Outside, on the building’s facade, Reena Spaulings uses the show’s title as a verb, with an awning that masks the gallery’s name and address. This bit of irreverence does nothing to disturb the suspicion that masks are us, a fixed yet fluid cultural constant.
“Mask” is on view through Jan. 26 at the James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, Chelsea; (212) 714-9500, jamescohan.com.