BY Ana Vukadin in Reviews | 09 OCT 20
Featured in
Issue 216

Caroline Achaintre Uncovers the Mysteries of Masks

At the Fondazione Giuliani in Rome, the artist looks at the playful and political aspects of disguises

BY Ana Vukadin in Reviews | 09 OCT 20

Walking around post-lockdown Rome elicits two contrasting feelings: joy and anxiety. It reminds me of the city of my childhood, when it was possible to wander into the Pantheon or toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain without having to push your way through enormous tourist crowds. The city centre has been reclaimed by its residents – stereotypes of Italian and expat glamour and wealth. But, as I walked by one shuttered shop after another, anxiety took hold. Things quickly started to feel desolate and I wondered how a city that has relied so much on tourism will pick itself up again.

‘Permanente’ (Permanent), Caroline Achaintre’s first solo show in Italy at Rome’s Fondazione Giuliani, also plays on this duality and is simultaneously joyful and dark. Louis Q (2020), for instance, is a large, hand-tufted wool wall hanging with blue, black, pink, yellow and white colour splashes. It may look like a furry, mythical bird but Louis Q is, in fact, Achaintre’s take on the notorious beak mask worn by Italian plague doctors during the 17th century, which was later adopted as one of the distinctive masks featured in the commedia dell’arte and the Venice Carnival.

Caroline Achaintre, Louis Q., 2020
Caroline Achaintre, Louis Q., 2020, hand tufted wool, 236 × 160 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Arcade, London/ Brussels; photograph: Giorgio Benni

Achaintre was working with masks long before they became part of our daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic. She first developed an interest in their use in German expressionism and its appropriation of primitivism; later, she looked at the crossovers between European Mardi Gras traditions and heavy-metal bands: think Venice Carnival meets Slipknot album artwork. Providing both protection and alias, masks are simultaneously animate yet inanimate, much like Achaintre’s ceramic sculptures Monika (2019) and Akin (2019), whose names bestow them with identity. The first work is shiny black while the second is a beautiful burnt bronze, with green and flame-blue hues. Both have two slits for eyes and are pinned to the wall. Elsewhere, other ceramics are grouped together on pedestals designed specifically for the space. The most uncanny are Trunkk B. (2018) and Trunkk P. (2018), which resemble either crumpled KKK hoods or the capirotes worn during holy week in Spain.

Caroline Achaintre, ‘Permanente’, 2020
Caroline Achaintre, ‘Permanente’, 2020, exhibition view, Fondazione Giuliani, Rome, Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Giuliani, Rome; photograph: Giorgio Benni

A number of Achaintre’s delicate, candy-coloured watercolours of ambiguous forms recall Rorschach’s inkblot and call to mind the starting point for her first tufted pieces. In the early 2000s, Achaintre translated her watercolours onto a loom, using the tufting gun to ‘paint’ with wool, creating her first large-scale wall hangings. Here, the works’ absurdist titles animate and alter the images: in Space Pup (2017), for instance, a skull-like mask in soft hues of yellow and blue stares out at us blankly

Another series of works resembling primitivist masks comprises three exquisitely woven wicker and bamboo sculptures. Standing more than three metres tall, they act as screens of sorts, the bamboo framing the looms onto which the wicker is woven. Featuring geometric chevron patterns, each piece has oval eyes that glare down at the viewer – either ominously (Observature, 2019) or absurdly (Ten-Eyed, 2019). Together, these works create a labyrinthine path to Glover (2018). This hand-tufted wall hanging could be an exotic bird in flight, with its yellow, sienna, pink and blue hues paired with black and white wool. After reading the title, however, I realize I have experienced a case of pareidolia – perceiving a face in an inanimate object – in this instance, a glove.

Caroline Achaintre,Ten-Eyed, 2019
Caroline Achaintre,Ten-Eyed, 2019, installation view, Fondazione Giuliani, Rome, Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Giuliani, Rome; photograph: Giorgio Benni

Achaintre’s unique approach to rethinking traditional techniques brilliantly subverts the stereotypes associated with her materials. Full of idiosyncratic characters, satire and social commentary, the works in ‘Permanente’ challenge and play with our perceptions, and the show feels serendipitous for these unsettling times. Humour – even when things get profoundly dark – offers respite and strength.

Caroline Achaintre ‘Permanente’ runs at Fondazione Giuliani, Rome, until 10 October 2020

Main image: Caroline Achaintre, ‘Permanente’, 2020, exhibition view, Fondazione Giuliani, Rome, Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Giuliani, Rome; photograph: Giorgio Benni

Ana Vukadin is a writer, translator and editor who lives in Jesi, Italy.