Artists Explore Self-Expression Through Bizarre and Whimsical Masks at Denver's Vicki Myhren Gallery
There is perhaps no symbol more representative of contemporary life than the humble face mask. A simple health device crucial to saving millions of lives around the world from a deadly COVID-19 pandemic spread by invisible airborne pathogens, and yet an object that’s been quixotically politicized at the callous expense of humanity for the gain of an elite few. A new exhibition at the University of Denver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery approaches the lighter side of face coverings: the ancient tradition of masks as self-expression.
Arranged on mannequins lining the gallery space, more than 40 artists present interpretations of protective face wear in MASK, currently on view by appointment through December 1, 2020. The collection of whimsical, grotesque, quirky, and beautiful masks are medically non-functional but guaranteed to provoke a reaction through their novel construction. Several designs mimic natural filtration systems like foliage or a coral reef, while others use repurposed objects like zippers or pipes to create wholly unusual face sculptures.
“Through this project, we hope to call attention to the significance and signification of masking as an issue of public health and demonstration of civic responsibility,” the gallery shares in a statement. “As the selected artists show, masking is also a mode of outward self-expression and opportunity for creativity. In turns utilitarian and fantastical, the wearable artworks shown demonstrate how makers and thinkers are engaging with the pandemic and applying their skills and individual styles to a newly important medium.”
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Chrome Faces Protrude from Drippy, Graffiti Backdrops in Hyperrealistic Paintings by Artist Kip Omolade
Set on a graffitied backdrop, the chrome masks Kip Omolade (previously) paints appear to emerge from the canvas, jutting out from the vibrant display to confront the viewer. The Harlem-born artist layers dripping colors and typographic markings that contrast the smooth, gleaming faces protruding from the center for his new series Masks: Portraits of Times Square and Luxury Graffiti, which he completed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement, he explains the history of the collection:
In New York City during the ’80s, my tag was ‘Kace’ and I would ‘get up’ on MTA subway car interiors, public walls in Brooklyn, and graffiti black books. Throughout the ’90s, I never stopped tagging. Even when I was painting from life, I was still tagging here and there in random spaces. Years later, I produced a real-life ‘Kace’—when my twin sons were born, I named them Kent and Kace. The ‘Kace’ tags in these paintings reference NYC subway ‘bombing’ of the ’80s, but mostly it’s about legacy. I want my work to represent our shared experiences of the past, present, and future.
Omolade’s process includes sculpting a resin mold of a chosen subject, which he then covers with chrome and uses as a reference for his hyperrealistic portraits. Many of the masks are reflective, revealing a hidden landscape. In Omolade’s self-portrait (shown below), an American flag in the shape of a bullseye marks his forehead, a nod to racial injustices in the United States.
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New York-based artist Hugh Hayden (previously) visualizes the ways African traditions are embedded into multiple facets of American culture through a series of cast-iron skillets. Part of a larger exhibition titled American Food, the 26 pans are molded to reveal facial impressions that evoke West African-style masks, blending the cooking tool and cultural object.
Generally established by cooks who were enslaved, southern food includes many of the flavors, techniques, and ingredients prevalent in African cuisine, forming what Hayden sees as one of the foremost culinary traditions distinct to the United States. This direct impact is evident in the physical artworks—the expressive masks literally emerge from the pans—although it transcends the effects on the kitchen. As he writes about “The Cosby’s” (shown below) on Instagram, “I made this triptych as an homage to the indelible cultural impact of the African diaspora on the creation of American entertainment, food, industry, and society.”
Hayden creates the skillets through sand casting, a manufacturing technique that utilizes the granular substance as a mold, which the artist employs as a way to recognize “the imperfectness of the materials, their colonial histories, and the inherent loss of detail in the reproduction process.” He also parallels the sculpting process to the diaspora, considering how the original object is obscured and imbued with cultural significance when it’s finished. Ultimately, American Food celebrates “the indebtedness to African origins in the cooking—as a form of creation of America, Western culture, and Modern Art,” a statement says.
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Masks, Toilet Paper, and Thermometers Transform into Miniature, Outdoor Adventures by Artist Tatsuya Tanaka
In the time of COVID-19, disposable face masks, toilet paper, and other essentials are synonymous with safety, precaution, and staying indoors. But in Tatsuya Tanaka’s ongoing Miniature Calendar series, the everyday items are subverted to create the tiny sets of outdoor adventures. A folded mask serves as a small tent, toilet paper descends from a wall holder as a snowy ski hill, and a thermometer outfitted with wheels transforms into a speedy racecar. For more of the miniature scenes from the Japanese artist and photographer (previously), head to Instagram, where he publishes a new piece daily. (via Lustik)
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Face Masks Hold Fish Tanks and Overgrown Patches of Botanics in Surreal Illustrations by Kit Layfield
A long way from the packs of blue, disposable masks many of us bulk purchased at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the face coverings Philadelphia-based illustrator Kit Layfield envisions are a bit more complex and otherworldly. He draws intricate contraptions featuring the traditional nose-and-mouth covering that then are connected to larger collars adorned with luxuriant shrubs, miniature ecosystems, and tiny fish tanks. The individual subjects all are situated within the diverse environments, providing the necessary structure to keep the micro-systems flourishing.
Layfield shares with Colossal that his surreal illustrations reflect a fascination with what he terms digital climate change. “I like to think of the various information ecosystems online in the same terms I would think of a natural ecosystem,” he says. “A fact can not exist alone, in the same way a flower can not exist alone. It needs to be rooted in something.” As media floods online, it becomes more difficult to wade through, which he expands on by saying:
The perfect example of digital climate change is the information ecosystem surrounding actual climate change. Every year, the information supporting climate change has become more and more undeniable, and simultaneously Americans’ belief in climate change has dropped. I think the information online backing up the truth of climate science is out there. However, the ecosystem that allows that information to survive and spread has been severely endangered.
Although Layfield’s illustrations are interwoven with fantastical elements, he hopes they inspire people to understand how connected they are to others and their environment. “Could somebody see a mask online, one that is so absurd it could never exist in reality, and make them think about wearing a mask in reality? I think it’s possible,” he says.
Find more of Layfield’s bizarre projects that merge social and environmental commentaries on Instagram.
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A clever new product by Danielle Baskin is a remedy to current challenges with facial recognition software used to unlock phones. The San Francisco-based designer recently launched Maskalike, a company that prints custom face coverings with photographs of the wearer. Made of machine-washable cotton, the functional masks create a seamless look that opens cellphones and other devices without having to remove it first.
Maskalike currently has a waitlist for custom designs, although there are options for those who want to maintain some anonymity. The company sells masks printed with Hide the Pain Harold, a man featured in stock photographs who now is recognized widely as a meme. “Look permanently uncomfortable, trying to be happy,” the product description reads.
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Editor's Picks: Design
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.