Weekly update – Masks in City Hall

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This week’s Weekly includes my piece on “Contemporary Masks,” the Art in City Hall exhibit. Here’s the link and below is the article with some added pictures.

About Face

“Contemporary Masks,” the new Art in City Hall exhibition, shows 21 local artists-a remarkably large number-who produce wearable headgear. Whether the masks were created for use in performance or ritual, or for wall display, the objects communicate the power of a veil to transform the familiar into something alien and forbidding.

Many of the masks resemble fierce totemic objects, and a few evoke life or death masks. And while none could be considered classically beautiful, the objects all convey an authority that comes from representing faces and heads — body parts that are deemed the home of individuality and spirit.

Unlike most of what’s on display, Robert Smythe‘s The Horse (pictured above) is made of metal, cloth and hair. And Stephen C. Layne‘s Fox and Girl — both made partly with animal fur (unclear whether it’s fake or real) — stand out for their descriptive instead of incantatory mien.

Less evocative of tribal rituals than of theater and costume, The Horse is shaped like a horse head. The Fox has a fox head (taxidermied or fake, it’s hard to tell) attached to a simple human facemask and evokes a child’s Halloween costume.

This doesn’t make Smythe’s or Layne’s masks lesser objects, but it does separate them from more iconic pieces like those of Clifford Ward or Chantaphone Rajavong, both of whose works stretch the imagination and take it on a time-and-culture-twisting trip.


Rajavong’s Astro Mask (right above) suggests a Don Quixote-like whimsical warrior or a tribal chieftain holding court. The mask’s materials and affect perfectly mix East with West, past with present. The simple metal mask is adorned with common materials (Mardi Gras beads, watch parts, hair, circuitry, thread, sunglasses lenses), and is put together with extraordinary flair and materials savvy. It’s an outstanding piece of assemblage art. Rajavong’s Fusion Mask, (left above) built with plastic spoons, cocktail forks, beads and buttons, (above) is likewise fresh and subversive.

Clifford Ward’s Masked Tattoo and Boy King Mask (above left) also mix East and West, this time African masks and Mardi Gras. Both are haunting and elegant.

Robert Aiosa‘s Untitled bird head made of latex, paint and hair is another standout. (image right) The large head, with its glass eyes and no apparent openings for a mouth, is topped with a wild mane of hair that looks like Elvis with bed head. The bird’s beak-exceptionally long and ending in a curved knob-resembles the extinct dodo or some other primordial bird. The mask is so lifelike it could be from a natural science museum.

But it’s art. The piece has been worn-as I saw in a documentary photograph in the student show “Philadelphia Sculptors Annual Student Exhibition 5 Into 1” at Moore College last spring. Aiosa’s photo, (left) a small version of which appears here with the bird mask, shows a young couple holding hands. Here’s my post which mentions the photo.
The girlfriend is wearing the bird mask, and the odd couple is compelling. Who hasn’t felt like an odd bird in a social situation? The photo is wonderful and wise, as is seeing the mask in the show.

Wearable masks like these are exaggerations of the figurative masks people wear. Many of these masks suggest power and threat, and
hierarchies with chiefs and followers. Sitting as they do in City Hall, the masks are a reminder of the city’s power players and their often fierce posturings.

“Contemporary Masks” Artist’s reception: Wed., Aug. 17, 5-7pm. Free. Through Oct. 14. City Hall, Broad and Market sts., second and fourth fls., northeast corner. 215.683.2078.

sketchesI’m spending way too much time at Flickr the free photo file-sharing site. Kind of like Friendster for shutterbugs, Flickr provides 20 megs of free storage per month and displays digital images at three sizes-thumbnail, medium and high-res. The user interface is as friendly as they come. The site’s a photo democracy akin to the traveling “Snapshot” exhibit at Arcadia University a few years back. There are a lot of kitty and girlfriend pictures, and mostly I don’t suggest spending time browsing-just upload and organize your own stuff for display. If you don’t have a website yet, start here and do it fast. Flickr is beta testing now and will charge a fee at some point. Speaking of photos, here’s a real-world pairing to try: Gallery 339’s emerging artists exhibit, which includes Sarah Stolfa‘s color portraits from her McGlinchy’s bar series, and Photo West Gallery‘s show of photo portraits by Corey Armpriester, with each sitter photographed while crying. Gallery 339’s show is up through Aug. 28, and Armpriester’s show runs Sept. 2 through 17, with a reception the evening of Fri., Sept. 9.

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