Kate Marling, “Classical Sculpture Mask” (2020) (photo courtesy the artist)

Face masks in all forms and colors have become an essential part of our lives due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with no end in sight. And it’s partly because of the refusal of some to wear them that we continue to see a rise in COVID-19 infections in the United States and around the world. A new exhibition at the Vicki Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver comes to remind the nonbelievers and the COVID-fatigued among us that face masks are not only crucial to our health but that they can also be delightful means of self-expression.

MASK, the gallery’s first exhibition after the COVID-19 shutdown in Denver, celebrates the centuries-long use of masks as ritual and ornamental objects throughout human history with new works by a group of 41 artists. The dozens of masks are positioned on mannequin heads throughout the gallery space. While some of the face coverings on display are not functional, they are a creative reminder of the times, and the creativity that can emerge from isolation.

Installation view of MASK (photo courtesy Emma Hunt)

COVID infection rates in Colorado reached a record high last week, with 6,722 new cases reported. Hospitalization numbers have tripled since September. “These numbers are definitely a concern for us,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihyin in a statement. “We need everyone to follow public health guidance to control disease transmission and ensure that health care and public health capacity isn’t strained.”

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen in Denver, the gallery says that it hopes that the exhibition will “call attention to the significance and signification of masking as an issue of public health and a demonstration of civic responsibility.”

“Equally, MASK calls attention to this newly important medium’s function as an outward mode of self-expression and opportunity for creativity,” the gallery added in a press release.

As part of the exhibition, the gallery has joined forces with RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Denver to fabricate free, functional masks that will be distributed to members of the community.

Ranging in style from the classical to the otherworldly, the masks on view offer inventive notions of what face-coverings can look like. Serge Attukwei Clottey’s science fiction-esque mask appears to be constructed from plastic pipes and found industrial materials. Elizabeth Morisette’s avian mask is a beak made out of zippers. Kate Marling designed a mask that invokes a classical sculpture as if freezing half of her face in stone. Trey Duvall’s “COVID19 (Mask for the Art World)” covers the mouth area with a brick fastened over surgical hand gloves, perhaps hinting at the silencing of certain voices. By contrast, Tobias Fike attached a sizeable megaphone to a mask titled “Mouthpiece.”

A virtual panel discussion with some of the featured artists will be held on November 5.

See a selection of the unique works below, including images of some of the artists modeling their masks.

Serge Clottey, “Mask for Our Times” (2020) (photo by Nii Odzenma)
Elizabeth Morisette, “Beak” (2020) (Image courtesy the artist)
Freyja Sewell, “Food” from Key Worker Series (2020) (Image courtesy the artist)
Matt Harris, “Hope” (2020) (image courtesy the artist)
Trey Duvall, “COVID19 (Mask for the Art World)” (2020) (photo courtesy Emma Hunt)
Tobias Fike, “Mouthpiece” (2020) (photo courtesy Emma Hunt)
Scottie Burgess, “Mask for Our Unseen Smiles” (2020) (image courtesy the artist)

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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