Masks. I am not wearing mine while typing this critique in my safe space at home. Yet, they are placed for immediate use on the table near my front door, inside my briefcase and purse, on the console of my car and my desk at work. Sound familiar? Perhaps yours are hanging from the rearview mirror or tossed on the coffee table. Our face masks, those with the purpose to protect us from spreading or receiving COVID-19, are each different and from different sources. The first to appear were the medical and industrial type made of a paper-fiber blend for professional use. Others that have showed up are machine-stitched white cotton (like underwear) distributed from the Ohio Department of Health, for example. Then we began to witness the creative masks like my first one that my girlfriend sewed of 100% brightly patterned cotton in accordion layers with elastic bands for the ears. My second mask of a papery material arrived in a long-awaited box sourced from China. The third was dye sublimated in our shop on the top layer of alternate polyester. Masks seem to be everywhere now.
In 2020 as COVID-19 has increasingly threatened public health, face masks have become a mandatory piece of attire in America. As this exhibit intends to show, masks have evolved from their basic use of protection against COVID-19 to a means of artful and political expression. Art collector Sara Vance Waddell, a collector who chooses to support living (contemporary) artists, purchased several masks from 50 different artists. Most are women and women of color originating in Cincinnati to around the world. As the idea arose to display them in an exhibit, other individuals came together. Ena M. Nearon became the curator, Jens Rosenkrantz Jr. provided his Pendleton Street Photography gallery as host. Vance Waddell provided her collection of 70 masks and Leslie Lehr Daly added over 20 cast “life” faces to it which she had produced. In addition, Cuban artists Rafael ‘Zarza’ Gonzalez provided a lithograph series that he made, and Osy Milian, a large poignant painting. The exhibit presents quite an interesting mix for the eyes and mind to experience.
I visited “The Masks We Wear” exhibit on a Saturday afternoon. Hours run Wednesday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Signage was clearly posted outside and inside the gallery to designate government-mandated wearing of masks and social distancing. Jens welcomed me, my spouse and our 95-pound Labrador retriever soon after we dawned our masks and entered through the foyer. Then, we followed Jens into the show.
The installation is well displayed and accessible. It begins with informational commentaries framed on the wall from the collaborators. The texts are expertly displayed behind eight-ply white matte framed with thin-white molding. The white on white helps the written text clearly stand out for reading. Each article places the exhibit into its thematic context. On the floor, white arrows placed at six-foot intervals subtly capture your attention. They guide you past the exhibit’s three display walls and around the stacked display table at a comfortable pace to enjoy the show. As you initially turn the corner to your right, Ena M. Nearon’s curatorial commentary introduces the art works. She provides ideas and thoughts to consider about wearing masks as a “challenge of expression and safety” as well as the “beauty and pain of wearing something so simple as a face mask.”
Immediately to the left you begin to see the display. Masks are organized in rows and held in place by unobtrusive magnets on six 40 X 30 pieces of galvanized steel that are nailed to the wall on each corner. The gray metal backdrop provides a neutral and consistent background to pull the exhibit together. Across the room are another six sheets that display a mix of lithographs and masks. Importantly, the first wall holds a large self-portrait painted by Osy Milian that strongly stands out in the middle of the plates of masks. Milian depicts herself wearing a bold red mask, eyes wide open that grabbed and held my attention. Jens, who had been helpfully narrating the exhibit, told us her story of being held by police who were demanding her to speak about out against a partner. She refused and kept her mouth shut. The red mask painted across her face depicts the intensity of the situation and symbolizes the threat of freedom of speech and repression. It is worth a second look from across the room as you continue through the show. Vance Waddell had previously purchased this painting and provided it to the exhibit. It is powerful.
While studying the individual masks, I noted various materials and techniques which the artists had employed. Many sewed masks of cotton imprinted with imagery or text. Most had tabs to pull around the ears or long strings to tie around the head. One used a rubbery wide band to go around the head that held a suspended clear protective plastic decorated with raised black dots over the face. They had used their talents of embroidery, beadwork, and sequins. Another made a simple mask of clear plastic and white ties. Others skillfully crocheted or quilted masks. A few were so heavily adorned that the function to wear them to protect one’s health was questionable. At this point, the expression to share one’s political thought or the whimsy to make one smile seemed to be key. There were basic institutional masks that artists chose to create. One was adorned with pretty lines of pearls and black sequins across the top and bottom of the mask framing the unmistaken imprint of Harriet Tubman at its center. Four masks at the far end of the first wall were simply imprinted with slightly differently posed middle fingers. By this point I had gained a sense of the artists’ thought and creativity. As I finished observing the masks along the first wall, it occurred to me that something was missing when I came upon the artist list.
A list of participating artists, alphabetically by first name in one column followed by their place of origin in a second. It was a plain paper smaller than 24 X 36 with no mat or frame affixed to the wall. It gave an idea of who the artists were generally, but left unanswered my questions of Who created this one? Or who crocheted that? There was no reference to answer these questions. This seemed odd and I realized something was missing from the exhibit: The masks and the artists are not linked. Neither the masks on display, nor the artists list are attributed to each other. Was it intended or a miss? It was not discussed in the curatorial commentary or other displayed texts. When I recognized the first alphabetical name on the list, Ai Weiwei, the self-exiled Chinese activist artist, I asked Jens, “Which masks did he make?” He proceeded to point to those with the middle finger. If only I could connect the other artists’ works with their name. It seems to be a natural interest of gallery viewers and when I mentioned this to Jens, he said others had asked and it was being addressed.
In any case, I did take some time to categorize the 50 artists’ origins mixing the domestic and international as follows: 25 are from Kentucky and Ohio, of which 15 are from Cincinnati. Five are from Mexico, four from New York, three from New Mexico, two from California, two from the U.K, and others from Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, the Cote D’Ivoire, Florida, and Chicago.
We continued to walk through the exhibit to view and learn about the face casts. Jens informed us about the method that Leslie Lehr Daly uses to cast the masks of living individuals displayed on the far wall and the center table. It was interesting to learn about, yet rather strange to recognize a few of the local faces. I would like to return and gaze at their facial details. They are really captivating as well as helpful mounts. The photo below shows masks on the wall, and a photo thereafter shows casts wearing heavier and more involved masks too difficult to place on the walls.
A fourth part of the exhibit is displayed against the other six galvanized steel plates on the third wall. It consists of a series of lithographs, set against white mat, held to the steel with magnets created by an artist that Jens had come to know in Cuba, Rafael ‘Zarza’ Gonzales. Last year he had produced this series of lithographs of African masks which reflect his memories of fighting in the Angolan war of the 1980s. They add another genre of facemasks to the exhibit and quickly replaced the work of an artist who had suddenly pulled out of the show. These masks created with black and red strokes of ink, portray energy in their movement and emotion in their eyes.
At different points along the arrow-led pathway, you can turn toward the center of the gallery and view masks and face casts stacked and situated on a table. The display table ties the exhibit together adding movement as it draws viewers’ attention from the display walls, downward and around for a 360-view. It offers a more dimensional view for the eyes to better understand the facial casts and how masks become situated on a face.
Overall, “The Masks We Wear” exhibit is likely one of the first in America to share artwork and societal expression during this tumultuous time. Phrases such as Black Lives Matter, Stop Killing Us, Can’t Breathe, No Justice No Peace, and BLM that are printed or embroidered on masks that tell part of the story. Others more whimsical attempt to draw a friendly smile. As to the middle fingers, it did not surprise me that these are attributed to Weiwei, known for his politically provocative work. It was interesting to learn from Jens about which masks were made by which artists. If he had not toured us around identifying masks and artists, I would have left with some emptiness. Jens was gracious, informational, and constantly articulating his support for the visual arts while hosting us at his Pendleton Street Photography. I compliment the collaborators and wish them the best as the exhibit evolves and tours.
–Deborah Johnson, PhD