A Survey of Iconic Masks in Visual Art


Guy Fawkes, los Luchadores, Sleep No More — there are oh-so-many masks in today’s popular culture, and so many questions. What’s with this desire to plop on another’s image and transform into something different, new and strange? Why hide your identity behind an oval-shaped obstruction and gawk at the world from behind its eye-holes? What kind of wrestling tights does one wear with a sparkly aquamarine Lucha libre mask? Just kidding. Let’s swerve the conversation into the field of visual art and investigate. From masks’ roots in ancient ritual performance to their use in contemporary art and related ruckus, peek under a few here and see if they’re still relevant.

Art has always been fascinated with the incredible masks of Sub-Saharan and West Africa. Cubists, Fauvists, Expressionists, and Abstractionists of various 20th century strains all owe inspiration to them. This is Surrealist Man Ray’s saucy muse Kiki de Montparnasse fondling one in Noire et Blanche(1926). Granted, artists may have been more fascinated with new different ways of interpreting the human face than understanding traditional spiritual rituals. Looking “different,” Picasso’s gaggle of les demoiselles !

The theater of Noh is a 600-year-old form of classical Japanese musical drama… with ghosts! You may remember this type of mask from Spirited Away … with ghosts! Noh performance sticks to a set of specific codified epics and folk stories, but the blank, rigid, pale masks are easy to understand in almost any narrative. It’s the face of death alright.

Skip forward, back to Surrealism with The Lovers (1928) by René Magritte. This type of “mask” — the sheet covering — is a big theme with Magritte, even though he denies it having anything to do with being 14 years old and witnessing his dead mother being pulled out of the river with her nightgown clinging to her face. It’s all up to the viewer, this. So, let’s say it’s about torrid, anonymous desires and emotional isolation of fleeting, passionate encounters. Or something.

Considered by scholars to be the first surrealist photographer in the United States, Clarence John Laughlin captured haunting images of the South — damsels in sprawled distress, architectural decay, sprawling, drying, spindling vines. His model’s doll part in The Masks Grow to Us (1947) speaks of aging post-Antebellum antiquity. Also, Courtney Love is singing a little bit or may that’s just us.

This painting by famous American contemporary artist Francesco Clemente — Self-Portrait Without the Mask — is quite direct. Do we really have to psychoanalyze it? Clearly, the man’s a pig. And then, he isn’t. Also, he is. And isn’t also. Ooh, that’s deep, ’cause, like, we all play with duplicity of character, especially in a world of self-curated social networking alter-egos, [continue get-off-my-lawn-Internet rant here]. Who is the real us? Who indeed.

Conceptual artist and prankster extraordinaire Maurizio Cattelan pulled a classic stunt in 1998 when he took to the streets of New York City, loitering outside the MoMA entrance with a gigantic mascot-sized head mask of Picasso, his signature stripy outfit and a cup of jiggling coins, begging strangers for money. What a burn…like an effigy! He was quite mysterious about the whole affair, of course. What can we glean? Sometimes, it’s good to mock the heroes of our time instead of wanting to be them. Sometimes, you can do both.

Contemporary artist Gillian Wearing has worn many, many meticulous masks, becoming everything from her own brother to model Lily Cole. One of her most interesting and accessible pieces is Self-Portrait at 17 Years Old (2003). If the motivation is unlimited transformation into someone else, why not be yourself, but younger, less jaded, yet unburdened by your own history? Let’s go there.

The colorful ski masks of Pussy Riot have now reached iconic pop status. This “punk band,” a collective that branched off from the notorious Russian activist art group Voina, isn’t really a punk band. When the group stormed mass in a central Moscow cathedral with hardcore music performance against the corrupt religious authorities (“Holy Shit Shit Shit!”), shady government (mainly Putin) and institutionalized homophobia, they were arrested. Now, three members have been unmasked and officially charged with “offending religion” and could face up to seven years in prison for it. Yes. You heard right. Seven years for something that would be considered “freedom of speech” in other places. They knew the risks — the gesture was purposeful, demonstrative, self-sacrificial, a true protest. The masks? They served as both protection of their identities and, of course, a killer image.

Banksy’s debatable anonymity is perhaps one of the few elements of his image the likens him to a “graffiti artist.” I mean, the dude produces doc- and mockumentaries, makes sculptures, sells work for millions and, as some hardcore graff-heads would argue, uses stencils, making him more “street art” and less “graffiti” on that scale. And yet, there he is. With his monkey mask. Elusive. Anonymous. Stealthy. Just like a vandal, his identity disguised by the cloak of night (or bandana, whatever), criminally slithering through the city illegally spray painting in unauthorized locations, ooh. But not really, Banksy.

When your motivation is simply to truly terrify, to create mind-bending physical characters divorced from reality, who needs Jason or Jigsaw, when you have the Hyperflesh baby! These prop masters/tech craftsmen/performance artists (out of sheer weirdness) conjuror some of the creepiest masks in the world and they are truly from Hell itself. Stop it. We can’t really think of anything worse. Oh wait. OK, that’s it. Masks off, everyone!