The mask is a metaphor universal among cultures. It has always been used to convey a personality distinct from the individual wearing the covering, be the meaning religious, dramatic, deceptive, supernatural, sexual, or myriad other connotations. The topic is well-worn, so I will not attempt a complete review of the meaning of the mask. To discuss two artists I want to examine in this series, though, a couple of points must be made.
Masks are not about revealing; they are about concealing. The implication of the purposefully obscured identity is more subtle than that of an identity that happens to be hidden from view. The mask is supposed to transform the identity of the wearer, so that a new personality is conveyed (and subsequent activities that come with acting are borne, such as role play). This is different than having one’s identity obscured by, say, a hat pulled low or a newspaper held high. In “The True American,” for example, the subjects’ faces are cleverly secreted, but not out of a need to create new personalities. Rather, the artist appears to be having fun with the circumstances, even if a deeper meaning of the work (rather than of the subjects) is intended.1
A subject wearing a mask (or a hood; discussed later) is also different from a face that is simply blotted out by the artist. The mask or hood is something that is worn—the subject, willing or not, is a participant. Not so if the person’s identity is ignored by an artist who places an object directly over the face. It is akin to trying to have a conversation with another, but being interrupted by an oblivious object. The conversation between subject and viewer is disrupted; it is now a one-way action: the viewer gazing upon an anonymous individual. If only we could peek around the rudely placed thing.
John Baldessari is most well-known for placing brightly colored stickers on the faces of people in photographs. His aim was brutal and direct—to remove the personality of the subjects so as to level the playing field between the viewer and the portrait-worthy subjects. “All of a sudden they had no power over me,” says Baldessari, “and I really saw them for what they were—that they were replaceable.”2
For the subjects whose faces are deliberately hidden by the artist, identity is not proclaimed through shouting, flamboyant displays, or in-your-face action. Rather identity is created by the absence of what we normally revert to first when seeking identity—character revealed through facial expressions and most importantly through what shimmers through the eyes. In other words, familiarity with human-ness.
But what if the eyes of lovers are hidden? What if, besides the viewer being unable to gaze upon the subject, the subjects themselves are hidden from each others' views? What if there are lovers whose identities appear unknown to each other?
- 1. The artist’s actual intent for this painting is unknown.
- 2. John Baldessari in Art in the Twenty-First Century: 5. Marybeth Sollins, ed. (New York: art:21): 124.