BY Charlie Fox in Features | 01 OCT 17
Featured in
Issue 6

Unmasking the Freak Inside Us

Charlie Fox traces the recurring appearance of the mask in art

BY Charlie Fox in Features | 01 OCT 17

You can have all kinds of wicked fun with masks. In the late 1970s, the artist David Wojnarowicz turned himself into the wild-boypoet Arthur Rimbaud and wandered New York; the Guerrilla Girls pull off badass manoeuvres against the phallocratic art world by donning ape masks; and Ben Rivers’s film Ah, Liberty! (2008) tracks a band of masked kids running amok in the English wilderness like a pack of post-apocalyptic hobgoblins. At once sinister and playful – the guarantee of a prankster’s anonymity or a toy-box lure into nightmares – masks are disorientating things. They vex any promise of intimacy in favour of something way creepier. Masks are frequently parodies of the human face, which makes them deeply disconcerting, though not to President Donald Trump, who deemed his mask ‘beautiful’ (naturally), at a Florida rally on 7 November 2016. But their most thrilling power is that they provide a way for anyone to escape the unbearable heaviness of being themselves. Interviewed for the Channel 4 TV series ‘State of the Art’ (1985–86), the US artist Cindy Sherman told the interviewer – whilst she was testing a prosthetic hog snout for her self-portrait Untitled #140 from the ‘Fairytales’ series (1985): ‘I look for the picture that doesn’t have anything to do with me, where I look like somebody, or something, else.’

This transformative power of the mask can be intoxicating – think of Dennis Hopper huffing that mysterious gas through his mask in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) – or it can conjure up and animate hideous feelings. In works such as Glenn (1984), Jean-Michel Basquiat painted African tribal masks grinning amid matrixes of data and quotation, providing self-portraits of a young African-American artist at the centre of the several kinds of chaos induced by too many drugs, the manic activity of his own brain and prolonged exposure to the wild environment of Manhattan. Basquiat also used masks to pay haunted tribute to his heritage: he was acutely conscious of the various raids on African culture performed by European artists. (The Cubists, for example, ogled the same masks.) The mask’s powers of bewitchment stretch back to archaic rituals and remain unchanged. Any death mask haunts us with the future state of our mortal flesh, including the schlock zombie masks worn by the boys in Diane Arbus’s snapshot Five Members of the Monster Fan Club (1961). Extravagantly disfigured and bug-eyed, they look like the sons of Lon Chaney (silent cinema’s legendary ‘man of a thousand faces’) in The Phantom of the Opera (1925): when his acid-scorched flesh was revealed at the movie’s premiere, women fainted in terror. Slimy feelings are always excited when we wonder what’s behind the mask – trick or treat?

In his 1985 essay ‘Urban Gothic’, the artist Mike Kelley pinpoints what’s so unsettling about masks: it’s their promise that ‘the surface is […] not of the same material as that which lies below it.’ Still more disconcerting is the fact that the mask itself is prone to mutation, transforming throughout art history from the faces frozen in grief adopted for Ancient Greek tragedies (one is offered by the heroine of Lorenzo Lippi’s painting Woman with a Mask, 1640) to hi-def masks that can be created through digital technology and found ranting or mourning in Ed Atkins’s videos. As virtual worlds and reality become inextricable, whole identities can be confected that operate with the same illusionistic power as any mask – a situation trippily explored in Jon Rafman’s movie Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (2010). The horror-movie question to keep in mind is: where does a mask begin or end?

Lorenzo Lippi, Woman with a Mask, 1640. Oil on canvas, 70 x 56 cm. Courtesy: Bridgeman Images

Francisco de Goya

In 1793, an undiagnosed illness – possibly caused by toxic paint – left Francisco de Goya totally deaf and prone to seizures and paranoid delusions. That same year, his sense of reality no longer what it once was, he began to map the shadowland of his greatest works, populated by a collection of monsters, grief-stricken innocents and ghosts. Máscaras crueles (Cruel Masks, 1796–97) appears in his album of etchings Los caprichos (The Caprices, 1799) and, like every other picture in the collection, is a nightmarish scene that captures human folly and woe. A creep in a frock coat wearing a donkey mask leers at the bosom of a distressed woman whilst his pal, a figure with the stare of a spooked puppet, gawks at her face. Along with Goya’s allegorical intentions (‘Beware the eyes of lascivious dudes!’), the artist stimulates yet more unease: the storyboard for a deranged fable. (Note the Tin-Man-like stiffness of the puppet’s face.) With its country setting and the amateurish look of the masks, the etching is a premonition of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s collected works. This Southern Gothic photographer shot his children in ghostly masks at play amid ruined barns and gravestones splintered like rotten teeth. Untitled (1957–58) shows his son in a beached rowboat wearing a bloodless kabuki mask and holding aloft a doll’s severed head: it’s like a still from a backwoods production of Hamlet with the prince considering Yorick’s skull. Meatyard’s oeuvre is a morbid example of the brand of rustic perversity that the singer and songwriter Tom Waits calls ‘surruralism’. But Goya’s picture also illustrates the mask’s inside-out effect, bringing what lurks within to the surface in order to reveal, like the Big Bad Wolf, the drooling beast inside the gentleman.

Francisco De Goya, Máscaras crueles (Cruel Masks) 1796-97. Ink wash on laid paper, 24 x 15 cm. Courtesy: Alamy

James Ensor

James Ensor cultivated the same feverish obsession with masks that a mad widower might have for his beloved in a Victorian ode. The reasons for the Belgian painter’s mania can be found in the gothic circumstances of his early life. Born in 1860 to a British father – a drunk who froze to death on the street – Ensor spent his childhood roaming his uncle’s costume shop, where parties of masks served as the boy’s audience. (Dwell on the waxen similarity between the mask, its expression fixed as if in rigor mortis, and the face of a corpse laid in its coffin.) Given these grisly influences, Ensor’s art was fully shaped by the time he hit his late teens; he painted Masks Mocking Death (1888) before he was 30. (The work was included in the exhibition ‘Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans’ at the Royal Academy in London earlier this year.) In Ensor’s picture, the crowd hounds the Grim Reaper like he’s a fiend staggering to the gallows: the pumpkin-headed ghost howls with laughter; that wooden hag murmurs an insult in his ear; and the puppet with a jack o’ lantern grin carved into his head looks on eagerly, awaiting some gruesome act. (Everybody in the typical Ensor masterpiece pullulates with such particular weirdness that they could be extras in a Federico Fellini movie or an awful drug trip.) If the surface of the painting has the panicky texture of goose-pimpled flesh, the fright lies in its preternatural grasp of what the writer Ian Penman calls ‘disembodied life’ in his 1990 essay ‘Fright Night’: the tingling childhood sensation that makes things go bump in the night and dolls prone to malign animation. Without operators, Ensor’s masks float as if in cahoots with an eerie breeze. Everything tilts towards the audience beyond the frame – death might reach out to clutch your arm! – like phantoms creaking from the shadows on an old ghost train or, flashing back to Ensor’s upbringing, an undead carnival approaching the foot of your bed in a childhood nightmare.

Claude Cahun

In her anti-memoir Disavowals (1930), Claude Cahun claims: ‘I will never be done removing all these faces.’ The photographs recording her private masquerade, which ran from her adolescence until her death in 1954, aged 60, remain a strange and magical testament to that belief. The artist transmogrifies into a hooligan straight from Nick Knight’s photo-book Skinhead (1982) – see her self-portrait from 1915 with shirt, braces and shorn head, ready to raise hell – or costume changes into Elle From Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard, 1929), embodying the fairy-tale sorceress who roasts her bloodthirsty husband alive as a Jazz-Age combination of vamp and clown. As she shape-shifts in these dressing-up games (sometimes she looks like Nosferatu), Cahun entices everybody to wonder how much any identity is a mask adopted for an audience. Yet, she was also a former anorexic who hungrily imagined her own disappearance, performing it repeatedly before the camera in private to soothe the chaos inside herself and – as she wrote in a funereal passage in Disavowals – experience ‘the morose delights of art’. Though Cahun’s oddly feline presence and enigmatic portraiture are too peculiar to be claimed as an example of any school, her exploits belong (blowing a kiss at another line from Disavowals) to what might be called the fabulous tradition of ‘pink magic’ in which queer artists ditch real life in favour of more fantastical identities. Given history’s virulent homophobia, performance artist Leigh Bowery’s reshaping of his face until he looked like a glitter-encrusted yeti or filmmaker Jack Smith’s turning himself into a pirate aren’t exactly whimsical activities: like Cahun’s works, they’re flamboyant rewrites of painful autobiographies. Any queer person is alert to the symbolic power of masks to both provide an escape and permit difficult feelings to be smothered. In many of her photographs, Cahun looks imperious and otherworldly, as if she were beamed in from an unknown future. In a photograph from around 1947, she appears like an angel in the graveyard where she would eventually be buried, her face erased by a blank mask, anonymous as stone. The British artist Gillian Wearing (whose work was exhibited alongside Cahun’s in a two-person show at London’s National Portrait Gallery earlier this year) paid ghostly homage to Cahun by visiting the cemetery where the artist and her companion, Marcel Moore, are buried. In her photograph At Claude Cahun’s Grave (2015), Wearing’s black hair cascades over her eyes and mouth like a shroud, her hands seductively framing her hidden face.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #140 from the series 'Fairy Tale', 1985, c-type print, 1.8 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian, London, Los Angeles and New York, Metro Pictures, New York, Skarstedt Gallery, London and Sprüth Magers, Berlin, London and Los Angeles

Cindy Sherman

A snapshot reproduced in the catalogue for Cindy Sherman’s 2016 retrospective at The Broad in Los Angeles provides a portrait of the artist aged 12, dressed up as a crone; she’s eerily reminiscent of the ageing dames seen in her photographs from the series ‘Hollywood / Hampton Types’ (2000–02). In the accompanying interview with Sofia Coppola, she gasps, ‘I love horror movies!’ and vows Goya ‘blew my mind’. All of these are prompts to mute what she terms the ‘theoretical bullshit’ that many critics invoke when gawping at her work and, instead, call them to pay attention to the Halloween-like vibes of scary-but-comic delight that animate four decades of her one-woman phantasmagoria. Sherman appears as a scowling clown, with bloodhound jowls and a raggedy flameorange afro, in a shot from her series ‘Clowns’ (2003–04): she looks as hungry for meat as the cannibal jester in Stephen King’s novel It (1986). In Untitled #174, from her series ‘Disasters’ (1986), a devil mask lies in a radioactive landscape: flesh aglow and horns lubricated, this sick Mephistopheles could be dying from a mystery disease or dreaming of his favourite sins. Like the finest horror movies, Sherman’s work is proof of the fun at the heart of being monstrous, which is also a strategy for rebelling against many of the prevalent gooey notions of what’s ‘beautiful’ or ‘feminine’.1 In 2003, Tate magazine asked the artist how she worked and she provided this witchy description: ‘I’m really just using the mirror to summon something.’ Or, to put it in the immortal vernacular of Missy Elliot: Sherman is always discovering magical new ways to get her freak on.

Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Gavin Brown's Enterprise, New York, and Cabinet Gallery, London

Ed Atkins

When he discovers his double asleep in the grass,the psychopathic narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Despair (1934), stunned, contemplates ‘my face, my mask’ appearing on somebody else’s head. What happens when faces or masks can’t be told apart is just one of the brain-melting questions that the British artist Ed Atkins dissects in his work. His short film Safe Conduct (2016) finds its protagonist – his face a computer simulation created through Atkins’s use of Kinect motion-capture software – adrift in the purgatory of airport baggage claim. This digital version of Victor Frankenstein’s creature repeatedly pulls off his own face only to reveal the same weathered mug beneath: the difference between ‘face’ versus ‘mask’ disintegrates. It’s as if a fatal glitch has infected the texture of horror cinema, looping, GIF-like, the moment of revelation (remember the climax to every episode of Scooby Doo?), only to short-circuit and amplify Atkins’s favourite mood of incomprehensible dread. Is the man – his flesh uncanny in its verisimilitude to the textures of ageing flesh – a villain or an impostor? He ends the film sky-high, eyes sour yellow from cirrhosis, huffing air through a gas mask in defence against his noxious world. Freeze-frame the moment when the flesh-mask is removed and ogle the behaviour of its imaginary material: it comes loose with a swamp squelch, stretching like the boneless Claymation faces of the undead couple in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Misbehaving flesh is one of animation’s big dreams. Atkins’s disorientated drifter is afflicted with the same condition as the devouring heads in the movies of veteran Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, which rot and reassemble at will, or Pinocchio with his infinite nose. In Safe Conduct’s world of motion-capture animation, the mask doesn’t mimic the face but acts like its mutant double, performing feats that organic flesh could never accomplish.

Whether they’re exhumed from antiquity or a digital simulation that uses the human face as raw material to be manipulated, the most bewitching thing about masks is that they are always waiting to be animated, staring at artists, full of malevolent potential.

1. Profiling Sherman in The New Yorker from 2000, critic Calvin Tomkins recounts tagging along with her to a Manhattan cinema where they watched Scream 3 (2000), which is decidedly not one of the finest horror films but indicates the kinky vicissitudes of any masterpiece’s afterlife since, natürlich, the killer runs around in a fright mask inspired by the face of the shrieking creature in Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1897–1910).

Main image: James Ensor, Masks Mocking Death (detail), 1888, oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm. Courtesy: Scala Archives, Florence

Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London, UK. His book of essays, This Young Monster (2017), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.