University of Denver's "Mask" show turns COVID-19 masks into art












The new “Mask” exhibition at the Vicki Myrhen Gallery suggests that we all have a choice in how we get through the current pandemic that is upending our lives: We can endure it or we can indulge in it.

We can wallow in our fear and aggravation or we can grasp on to the possibilities it sometimes places right before our eyes. Or, as this exhibit attaches to symbolically, those things below our eyes in the face coverings we are all mandated to wear now.

Showcasing work from 41 artists who practice a range of disciplines, the exhibit transforms those masks from muzzles to megaphones, encouraging us to think of them not as burdens, but as billboards for self-expression and avenues for creativity.

If you go

“Mask” continues through Dec. 1 at the Vicki Myhren Gallery on the University of Denver campus. It’s free but advance appointments are required to reduce crowding. Info at 303-871-3716 or vicki-myhren-gallery.du.edu.

In one sense, “Mask” is a fashion show featuring designer looks conceived for the accessory du jour. The wares in this parade of apparel come in a range of cuts, colors, fabrics and styles.

You like fringe? Frankie Toan’s Lone Ranger-like cowboy mask, titled, “The OP,” gives it to you in gold.

Prefer silk or cotton? Dorothy Grant’s “raven” mask employs both fabrics, printed with references to the raven, a symbol of strength and wisdom for the Haida Nation, which she is part of.

How about lace? Tiffany Matheson’s elaborate mask starts at the nose and mouth and extends into an entire headdress. It’s made of various materials, but it hangs soft and sheer like a veil.

Of course, the title of Matheson’s piece, “Momento Mori” hints at something more serious than haute couture, translating into something akin to “remember you must die.” It doesn’t let us forget, that amid all this dreaming, there is a deadly disease ravaging the world.

That duality defines the masks in this show. They can be fun to look at, but they often come with a catch. Take, for example, Cristina Rodo’s “Covidus,” which is made of wool and takes the form of an octopus that has attached itself unrelentingly right on the center of a face. There’s a punchline there, though it gives way to the fact that masks actually can feel like they are stuck to us, whether we like it or not.

Or Michael Espinoza’s “How to Survive a Plague,” made of plastic condom wrappers, which is both amusing and foreboding, making clear connections between COVID-19  and the last major health crisis the world faced, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which continues to afflict millions of people.

Or Liz Sexton’s well-crafted, papier-mache “Porcupine,” which takes the form of a pointy, puffed-up fish and covers the entire head. It’s artful, almost beautiful, but prohibits the wearer from showing any emotion, frustratingly diminishing our facial expressions like all masks do.

This same idea is embodied exquisitely in Ashley Frazier’s “Glass Mask,” an elegant face covering studded in shards of glass. It glistens like a beaded gown in a ballroom — though you wouldn’t really want to dance with it.

Even the masks that reference art history — Kate Marling’s “Classical Sculpture Mask” which looks like a modified Michelangelo; or Mathias Kresmer’s “Arcimboldo” which is decorated in fruits in the style of famed 16th century, Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo — appear plastered-on or overbearing.

In some ways, “Mask” feels slammed-together. It’s not fine-tuned the way most art exhibitions are. The masks are displayed simply, on shelves installed at eye-level, and the objects are all positioned on identical mannequin heads. There’s no rhythm, just the goods.

There’s also a lack of signage. Instead, gallery visitors are pointed to a QR code, which allows them to download a guide on their phones where, with some effort, they can learn the names of artists and the media they used.

That is a safety measure, of course, meant to reduce touching and germ-spreading. The gallery is on the University of Denver campus, which appears to be taking safety precautions seriously; masks are everywhere and access to buildings is limited to avoid crowds.

But the lack of polish works in the show’s favor. It feels immediate and urgent and underscores just how big a challenge it was to put this exhibition together, on a tight time schedule and amid the chaos of a pandemic, a task accomplished by the gallery’s Lauren Hartog, working with a team of graduate students.

The gallery itself, usually reserved exclusively for exhibitions, has been commandeered of late by school officials who are desperate for classroom space as class sizes have been reduced. For that reason, the exhibition is open to the public only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

The provisional nature of the display also helps to make it an appropriate venue for masks that fall on the more post-apocalyptic side of things. The urgency, for example, heightens the effects of Serge Attukwei Clottey’s untitled mask that appears to be fashioned — out of hysteria and in a hurry — from the mouths of multi-colored, plastic jugs.  It magnifies the sci-fi edge of Tracy Tomko’s  “BYOO (Bring Your Own Oxygen),” which is made of clear tubes that contain plants meant to produce their own breathable air — just in case the wearer needs it.

Overall, the exhibition manages to walk a fine line between entertainment and social commentary on the state of the world. All of those things that have come to be true about mask-wearing — the political or patriotic aspects, the necessity and annoyance and resignation of it all — are manifested here.

The exhibit might feel frivolous to some people, both to those who have suffered loss or illness due to the coronavirus, and to those who feel put upon by having to wear a mask at all.

But it also serves as a bit of coaching at a time when we need it. Masks and other precautions are going to be a part of our lives for awhile. We can fight that or we can find a few ways to tolerate it with humility and humanity. This show focuses on masks, but it reminds us that there are people behind them, hindered by inconvenience but still able to define the moment on our own terms.

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