The impulse to transform one’s visage is an elemental one, practised by every culture on earth. From the African continent to the Inuit societies of North America to the islands of Oceania, ancient peoples used materials like mud, wood, bone, feathers and metals to craft masks made for everything from conjuring rain to guiding the dead into the spiritual realm. Aside from ceremony, masks have also long had practical implications: Think of the medico della peste, or “plague doctor” mask, with its long, birdlike beak, which was worn in the 17th century by physicians hoping to protect themselves from the Black Plague, and which became one of the enduring visual images from that time, a metaphor for the facelessness of death itself.
The superhero masks that DC Comics and Marvel have made ubiquitous are rooted in concepts invented by ancient Greek theatre, where expressive, painted ones — sad, angry or happy faces — were worn by actors so that audiences could see their moods from afar. Today’s masks also exaggerate emotion — consider Joaquin Phoenix’s award-winning Joker, his painted-on grin a grotesquerie of genuine human expression — but more frequently they conceal it, the person and his real identity hidden beneath makeup or a skin of fabric or latex. (The anti-superhero series “Watchmen” is an exploration of what all that disguising does to us — does it make us feel protected, or does it allow us to avoid what we’d rather not examine? Does wearing a mask make us more human — or less?) So threatening is the mask that today it is illegal to wear one at demonstrations in many American and European cities. Last October, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, invoked the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation, making it a criminal offence to don a mask, even at lawful events. The ban is a strange counterpoint to the resurgence in the United States of the Klan, whose hoods once concealed their identities but who now march openly at their events.
The ability of masks to convey an emotion or a message, to shroud or empower, confuse or clarify, is as potent now as it was thousands of years ago — and perhaps explains why a number of young artists are reinvigorating the age-old form, creating a new wave of eerie visual commentary that has been embraced by fashion. These mask makers — each part artisan, part performer, part self-portraitist — have interpreted the medium in many different ways, whether by creating removable, lasting works or by making ephemeral ones applied directly to the face like body art.
Fashion’s long fascination with masks extends back to Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Visards — pressed paper ovoids lined with silk and coated with an outer layer of black velvet — were worn by women not only as a sign of high breeding but to safeguard their complexions. The masks had small slits for the eyes and a string attached to the mouth slot and tied with a glass bead that the wearer would hold between her teeth. This rigging obviated the need for an unsightly head strap but also rendered one speechless, an attribute for a woman in 16th-century England.
Blommers & Schumm. Styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin
Masks from left: Shin Murayama mask. Joshua Werber mask, price on request. Lauren Kalman mask, price on request. Marguerite Barroux mask, US$2,000.
These days, fashion masks are mostly worn on the runways rather than in real life, and are a dramatic tool for some of our most provocative designers. New York’s Thom Browne has adorned models with everything from giant grey wool elephant heads (fall 2014) to red-mesh hockey-style shields (spring 2019), and at Maison Margiela, masks have been entirely covered with crystals (fall couture 2012). Gucci’s Alessandro Michele outfitted models with knitted ski masks for his fall 2018 show, and for fall 2019, shiny B.D.S.M.-style ones and one with a green velvet facade that recalled the Elizabethan visard. “A mask is so hollow but also full,” Michele said after the show.
It’s a statement that the Brooklyn-based artist David Henry Nobody Jr. might echo. He typically applies materials directly onto his own face, creating work that is as impermanent as it is alive, using materials as diverse as marijuana buds, cans of Manwich sloppy-joe sauce and a deconstructed pink toy convertible. Then there are the East London-based artists Mariana Fantich and Dominic Young, collaborators since 2008, who stage photographs starring Fantich wearing reconstructed military regalia and hockey masks covered with hundreds of ivory-coloured teeth procured from denture sets, human hair and bones. Inspired by everything from basket weaving to Francis Bacon’s distorted figural paintings, the pair were originally drawn to the medium by “the unabashed pomp and ceremony that surrounds the experience of wearing a mask in a ritualistic ceremonial setting,” says Young.
The Detroit-based artist Lauren Kalman, who came to masks by way of jewellery making, says that she is fascinated by the relationship between objects and the body. “A lot of my work highlights the mouth — it is a charged space, nurturing, but also where we express things, and an erotic zone,” she says. Kalman’s riff on the pearl necklace — “the polite pearl gone wild, pearls taking over the face and the body,” she says — is a muslin balaclava-shaped work without eye slits, completely encrusted in luminescent cream orbs, at once beautiful and suffocating.
For Threadstories — an Irish mask maker and performance artist — the individual remains paramount, a paradox she embraces. “It is a balancing act; people still need to see the face in the mask,” she says. “When I make something with no visible or suggested facial features, it often leaves the viewer cold. People respond to the person behind the mask as much as the art form.” And who wouldn’t respond to a mask that culminates in a fierce lionlike mane made from layers of yarn, startling in blinding blue, or one of white crochet surrounded by gravity-defying hot-pink yarn tresses?
The relationship between the mask and sexuality, the notion that some power is so dangerous it must be hidden, may also be responsible for the current revival. In these uncertain times, when the very planet we inhabit is on fire, when our collective assumptions regarding gender are no longer fixed but suddenly profoundly fluid, the appeal of masking our ambivalence is perhaps more seductive than ever. The Canadian artist Amanda Walker, who calls her creative endeavour Black Sheepish, is inspired by art that explores themes of female identity and metamorphosis. Her work manages to express a certain wistfulness, with a rueful woolly smile occasionally emerging from the ratty swirls of coloured fabric cords and sheep fleece she uses to construct her animalistic, slightly unsettling pieces. It was Alex Garland’s 2015 film, “Ex Machina” — a dystopian fantasy featuring a female humanoid robot named Ava — that gave rise to Walker’s musings on authenticity and disguises. “The work I create is an expression of that flux, of my rage and grief, of the tension of existing every day in a body that doesn’t always feel safe,” she explains. “There’s also a kind of magic involved. I choose my materials but let the mask become whatever it’s meant to be.” It’s a mask as a means toward self-definition: a chance to do the hard work of discovery — but in a way no one else can see.
Clothing at top, from left: Louis Vuitton top, skirt and bag. Louis Vuitton jacket, pants, brooch and belt, price on request, and Kwaidan Editions bag. Celine by Hedi Slimane dress, necklace, belt, bag, and bracelets. Lacoste coat, and Chloé top and pants. Balenciaga dress, earrings, and bag. Marc Jacobs jacket, shirt, skirt, and scarf, and Chanel bag. Salvatore Ferragamo vest, shirt, and pants.
Clothing in second photo, from left: Bottega Veneta coat, and pants, and Peter Do top,. Prada jacket, shirt, and skirt, Moschino Couture glasses, and Tom Ford bag. Miu Miu coat, shirt, and skirt. Kwaidan Editions jacket, and pants.
Set design by Jill Nicholls. Hair by Shinya Nakagawa at Artlist New York. Makeup by Souhi at Lowe & Co. Casting by Studio Bauman. Models: Avi Mcclish at APM, Claire Delozier and Cassi Priestly at Next, Neysy Vincente at IMG, Willow Rose at Wilhelmina, Bianca Redmerski at the Identity and Aicha Mohamed at Red. Photo assistant: Diego Garcia. Stylist’s assistants: Thomas Kivell and Kamila Gosiewska. Set design assistants: Todd Knopke and Mike Williams. Hair assistants: Hiro Furukawa and Mai Kimura. Makeup assistant: Ivelisse Rosado.
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