Saving Face or Losing It?
A collection of tribal and contemporary masks at James Cohan Gallery

UNIVERSAL ACROSS TIME AND CIVILIZATIONS, masks are among man’s oldest forms of expression. Anthropologists tell us they exist in every society; psychoanalysts insist we all wear them. They serve an infinity of purposes and their primal fascination remains as compelling to moderns as to aboriginal peoples.

19th C. Italian Carnival mask

MASK at James Cohan Gallery comprises a collection of some 40 historic and ethnographic masks, dating from 700 BCE through the 20th century. Assembled by Joseph G. Gerena Fine Art, a by-appointment-only gallery of Asian and tribal arts, these are exhibited in tandem with works by 30 contemporary artists. Several pieces were commissioned by the James Cohan Gallery.

The ensemble is a cabinet of curiosities tracing the roots of contemporary masks and masking. It is only partially interested in masks as works of art. Styles of identity, its construction and deconstruction, occupy a good share of attention. Only in the art world, where fabricated identities are daily bread, can it be said that “the bounds between real and assumed identities are becoming indistinct.” But a wobbly premise does not get in the way of a salient display.

Tribal pieces anchor the show to the taboos, sacred rituals and ceremonial performances that separate masked initiates from the unmasked. Mr. Gerena’s commentary In the accompanying brochure emphasizes the vitality of these specimens in their indigenous cultures:

Navigating the realms of magic, medicine and morals, tribal masks transfigured wearers into agents of atonement, exorcism, petition and healing. A carved 19th century caribou/walrus mask from the Yukon, worn to invoke the spirits of animals killed in the hunt, entails elements of thanksgiving and apology. Necessary for a community’s survival, animal deaths were appeased to insure more good hunting.

The confused features of a Congolese sickness mask testifies to tribal understanding of illness as a deformation in the natural order. A Papuan spirit mask marked the transition of young males to adulthood in formal rites of passage. An 11th century bronze Chinese funerary mask escorts the deceased into the next life and establishes his status there.

Fine theatrical and festival masks are on display. Ancient military headgear, including a 1st century mask worn in triumphal procession by Roman centurions, appears alongside protective devices. A Russian submariner’s hood, an early firefighter’s smoke mask or Eskimo snow goggles are not masks in the strict sense. These are lifesaving equipment; still, they have the exotic qualities of an initiate’s costume.

Contemporary submissions are heavily weighted toward photography and video. Phyllis Galembo’s documentary images of Nigerian masquerades have true anthropological interest. Others, like Matthew Barney in sows ears, are sight gags.

Olaf Breuning’s video “Group” (2001) sets five painted, half naked fellows in monkey — or are they Neanderthal? — masks loose in a tropical setting where they race around setting off flares in a manic but tedious pseudo-ritual. Somewhere in there is a statement about shifting identities.

Mr. Breuning’s commissioned piece for this show, “The Face” (2007) is a give-a-damn funny-face of plastic pieces and wiring that illustrates his confession: “I don’t care about people who want to save high art.” You can tell.

Folkert de Jong fulfills his commission with a polyurethane foam, look-ma-no-hands totem pole void of all association. Tony Oursler sets a DVD player inside a flat, green aluminum blotch. On screen you can watch a close-up of the artist twisting his features. Caron Geary, a Saatchi product, decks herself out with Mouseketeer ears, African neck rings and not much else for “British Cunt: Self-Portrait” (2007). Slogans painted across her chest read: “Slag,” “White Bitch,” etc. It is apt accompaniment to Vibeke Tandberg’s untitled photomontage of herself inscribed with: “Things I know and then I die.”

Vito Acconci plays Arcimboldo for techies. “Virtual Intelligence Mask” (1993) is less a mask than a portrait of Video Man constructed out of surveillance cameras and a small TV-radio mounted on a fencing mask. Former graffiti artist RAMMELLZEE replicates the theater of ethnic masks with oddments found on the street. An anonymous outsider creation made of pull tabs from aluminum soda cans is a fastidiously crafted facsimile of a hockey mask in chain mail. Among the modern entries, these have visual wit.

Antlitze, (detail) Jurgen Klauke

The single contemporary piece that approximates the frisson of the historic pieces in their original settings is Jurgen Klauke’s “Antlitze,” an installation of 96 head shots of mainly Islamic terrorists in ski masks. Klauke’s intention to aestheticize the images, a la his Anarchoaesthetic series from the 1970’s, fails. In that failure lies its menacing power.

No graceful distance blunts the immediacy of foreboding. This is conventional thugwear. But it heralds the lethal mysticism of jihadists. In spite of itself, the installation represents a bloody urge for transcendence that takes jihadism past politics, back to the ecstatic violence of savage cultures.

With typical postmodern nonchalance, MASK indiscriminately mixes the theatrical with the criminal, utilitarian and sacred. Kabuki actors, shamans, Guerilla Girls and Palestinian terrorists are put on show together as morally indifferent mummeries. “Get used to it,” is the brochure’s conclusive comment on “armies in blue jeans and masks.”

In its descent from items of communal purpose into vacant idiosyncrasy and detached acceptance of terrorism, the exhibition announces that art itself has become a mask for nihilists.


“MASK” at James Cohan Gallery (533 West 26 Street, 212-714-9500).

This review appeared first in The New York Sun, December 27, 2007.

Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey

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