‘A mask is just a mask’ | Penn State Exhibit Explores Complexities of Masking | Way of life
Masks have been a form of expression for thousands of years.
From the gilded and gem-encrusted masks used in funerary rituals during the reign of Egyptian pharaohs to the ornate and expressive masks used by actors in Japanese Noh theater, masks have a heritage of invoking powerful emotion.
However, after the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, masks have taken on a new form of expression – one that can sometimes be difficult to fully understand.
Open to the public until March 2 at the 125 Borland Building, a collection of graphic memoirs and mask-themed scenes in a pandemic-ridden world are featured in a new exhibit. Titled “MASKED,” the exhibition explores three artists’ own experiences with the practice of masking.
Michael Green, professor of humanities and medicine at Penn State’s College of Medicine, is a leading voice in the graphic medicine movement, which focuses on the impacts comics can have in health care settings. .
“I’ve been really interested in comics for a long time,” Green said. “I think they’re accessible in a way that other modes of communication aren’t… It’s just a really powerful medium.”
Some of Green’s work in the exhibit explores personal and family experiences with masking and the potential realities masks can have on future generations. His work takes the form of more traditionally panel comics, similar to those found in graphic novels or comic books.
At the 2016 Graphic Medicine Conference in Dundee, Scotland, Green met the other two artists featured in the collaborative exhibition, and their work together ultimately sparked the idea for a whole new experience.
Penn State Abington art and art history lecturer Emily Steinberg and School of Theater professor William Doan collaborated with Green to create an exhibit highlighting the impacts of masking on society. The trio’s work was first shown at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center during the fall 2021 semester before heading to University Park this spring.
Although the exhibition remains a cohesive exploration of masking, Doan said individual works were often done independently.
Unknowingly, every artist had done mask-focused art during the early days of the pandemic. When they reunited via Zoom meetings and realized they had each created similar work, Doan said they quickly realized they had to put the pieces together in an exhibit.
“We all found that by doing our work independently on masking, we were exploring some really interesting things, beyond our own self-interest,” Doan said. “It just seemed like a viable idea to put all the work out there and let people respond to it however they want to respond to it.”
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Doan said the work within the exhibit provides a diverse range of answers at personal and social levels and to questions about “masking as a public health issue.”
With a previous history of using masks in theatrical settings, Doan’s current work in the exhibition encompasses several medieval plague doctor masks with various comic strips and designs featured on the surfaces.
Providing a contrast to the flat, hand-drawn cartoon images prominently displayed along the walls of the exhibit, the masks offer an assortment of colors and textures. The masks represent words and images that highlight themes of the ongoing pandemic.
While creating the masks, Doan said pandemic concerns were always part and parcel of the process, ultimately making the experience an “emotional rollercoaster.”
Despite the mental cost of thinking about the pandemic, Doan said the process was worth it and made him “hopeful” for the future.
Wanting to draw and create stories is an integral part of the human experience, Steinberg said. With comics such as those in the exhibit, she said humans have been sharing their experiences through visuals for thousands of years.
With the work featured in the exhibition, the comics are brought to life through the use of printing on large vinyl banners that span from ceiling to floor. Steinberg said blowing up the comics made them “larger than life.”
“I liked that they were just puffed up on these weird banners,” Steinberg said. “It almost feels like a carnival or a circus, or something that’s not as serious, as typical as putting something on a canvas of paper.”
Observing the effects of the pandemic through an often satirical lens, Steinberg’s work reflects some of the absurdities of society’s culture of masking.
One of Steinberg’s star pieces, made in 2020 before masking mandates came into force in the United States, is a comedic commentary on the looming trend of mask-wearing. The artwork features several parodic images of hazard masks displayed as fashion statements with brief descriptions of how each mask would work as an upcoming fashion trend.
Another Steinberg collection in the exhibit features a timelapse of self-portraits along with his thoughts of that day and the growing death toll in the United States.
Over three months of hand-drawn portraits, Steinberg highlights the unsettling hold the coronavirus had at the start of the pandemic.
While the pandemic has proven to be a time of great despair in the lives of so many people, Steinberg said there was always a need for humor in times of tragedy. With the increased frenzy of mask mandates coming and going and the growing political nature of masks as well, she said this was all the more reason for satire.
“There will always be something, even in the worst situations, that we can laugh about,” Steinberg said. “The very idea of individualism in America is really what prompted this satirical look.”
Building on the bond she has with Green and Doan, Steinberg said the discussions the trio had over Zoom during the pandemic provided artistic energy that helped bring the exhibit to fruition.
Green said despite the impacts masks may continue to have on the future, the experiences people have had and will continue to have with masking is what makes the exhibit resonate. If masking isn’t a thing of the future, Green said, then at least the exhibit will help provide additional historical context for future historians.
“Everyone has experience with masks,” Green said. “To see how their own experience connects to all of the experiences we describe – hopefully that will make sense to people.”
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