Artists in Denver are expressing their feelings about the Earth’s most recent plague using the most contentious icon of the coronavirus: the face mask. In a new installation by the same name, the Vicki Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver has featured the works of 41 artists, whose face coverings run the aesthetic gamut from gorgeous to grotesque, extracting all kinds of emotions about life in the “new normal.”
“In their wide spread across the globe, masks have become a ubiquitous symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the gallery website says. “Through this project, we hope to call attention to the significance and signification of masking as an issue of public health and a demonstration of civic responsibility. Equally, MASK calls attention to this newly-important medium’s function as an outward mode of self-expression and opportunity for creativity.”
These are certainly no ordinary face masks (nor are they medically functional). Some are whimsical and quirky, like Serge Attukwei Clottey’s mask wiring together plastic container fittings and cardboard tubes, or Freyja Sewell’s “Food,” itself a layering of green felt in free-flowing shapes that extend into a headpiece. Others are thought-provokingly serious, like the one entitled “Incalculable Loss,” constructed from hospital tags inscribed with the names and locations of American COVID-19 casualties.
Also haunting is Tiffany Matheson’s beautiful “Momento Mori.” Although the elaborate lace nose and mouth drape is lovely, the overall work, whose title is Latin for “remember you must die,” reminds us of the fragility of life in these times.
Michael Espinoza’s “How to Survive a Plague” uses humor to hint at bigger issues. Made from plastic condom wrappers, it simultaneously evokes the idea of fun and fear, drawing a connection to a past worldwide pandemic, HIV/AIDS.
Other designs in the series encapsulate the feeling of being stifled, whether it be physically or psychologically. “COVID-19 (Mask for the Art World)” by Trey Duvall uses a brick affixed to surgical gloves as a mouth covering, a nod to the difficulty of expression that comes with mouths and voices being restricted. Kate Marling’s “Classical Sculpture Mask” transforms the wearer’s lower visage into that of a Greek goddess, but alludes to the frozen nature of our countenances in public right now.
Cristina Rodo’s “Covidus,” a woolen octopus that seems to be suctioned right over the nose and mouth, relates how this pandemic sometimes seems to be sucking the life out of us. There’s even a double mask in the collection, itself comprised of two face coverings connected at the cheeks with respiratory tubes protruding down from each mouth. Called “Contact,” it intimates the longing we have for human relationships during this time of separation.
The installation’s layout also adds an element of import. The designs are all positioned on faceless mannequin heads at eye level, each standing in no particular artistic order. This lack of refined arrangement points to the urgent and chaotic nature of both putting together an art collection in troubled times and the pandemic itself.
“MASK” will be on display through December 1st. Entrance is free, but appointments (and masks) are required to maintain social distancing. As a part of the exhibition, the Vicki Myrhen Gallery will also be contributing money to Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center, which is creating free protective face masks for the local community.