The Drama of Identity: Revealed

As Hand/Eye recently publicized, Kathryn Shields gave a stellar presentation on the subject of masking in contemporary art this past Thursday evening at the Weatherspoon.  Fortunately, an impressive Guilford contingent attended! Though I probably won’t do Kathryn’s research justice, I will try to provide a summation of her insights for the interested members of our community who could not be there.

“[Kathryn’s] presentation was riveting and caused me to look into how I use a mask daily just to get through a day.”

–Zachary Kronisch, c/o 2014


Masking has multiple functions in all forms of art. Masks both reveal and conceal, and they can cause roles to be dually assumed and discarded, as Kathryn explained. For instance,  Nick Cave’s body suits (pictured below, described in our Persona post), simultaneously hide the appearance of their wearers and denote a personality of their own. “They manifest identity and create a vehicle for transformation,” Kathryn said.

Kathryn established the precedence for masking in contemporary art by describing how masks have been used throughout history among different cultures, and how historical functions and styles of masks have inspired and informed modern and contemporary art. Edward Curtis (February 16, 1868 – October 19, 1952), for example, was celebrated and criticized for his staged photographs of Native American Masks.

“Mask of Tsunukwalahl” (1914)
“Mask of Tsunukwalahl” (1914)

Kathryn went on to explain the three main varieties of masking (literal, technical, and metaphorical), and how these categories intersect and become evident in contemporary art. Generally and vaguely speaking, a literal mask is something that can be worn. Technical masking denotes facades and covers featured in collage, digital art, photography, etc. An example is the lace in Edward Steichen’s Gloria Swanson (1924, below).

Metaphorical masks are those that humans wear daily–at worship services, at bars and clubs, in any situation in which we are expected to take on parts of a pre-determined identity. They are not always obvious.

This form of masking (along with literal masking, arguably) is prevalent in Nikki S. Lee’s work. In her Projects series, completed while she was a graduate student at NYU, Lee familiarized herself with various subcultures she encountered in the city. These included “hip-hop people,’ ‘schoolgirls,’ ‘seniors,’ ‘Hispanics,’ ‘tourists,’ ‘Ohioans,’ ‘skateboarders,’ ‘lesbians,’ and ‘yuppies,’ among a few other facets of society that Lee felt obliged to identify and categorize. She created such convincing metaphorical masks—assimilating into different modes of dress, language, and even sexual expression—that the individuals with whom she formed relationships allowed her to photograph herself posing with them.

"Hip Hop Project No. 3" (2001)
"Hip Hop Project No. 3" (2001)

I asked Kathryn how one could distinguish between masking and  appropriation in this sort of work, and she admitted that a grey area does exist. Though Lee must be aware that she is treading in potentially problematic waters, she doesn’t seem to mind. According to the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Lee stated, “Essentially life itself is a performance. When we change our clothes to alter our appearance, the real act is the transformation of our way of expression—the outward expression of our psyche,” suggesting that the social mores of the groups featured in her projects, like her research, are just part of an extreme performance.

Though Lee did an astounding job of adopting the lifestyles of the people she studied in each of her projects, she did not go through the same shared experiences as any of them. Thus, to imply that it is possible to throw on a metaphorical mask and join another culture is a dangerous and marginalizing assumption, in my opinion. Nonetheless, her work is a testimony to the power of the mask and its relation to identity.

Lee’s predecessors’ work was equally powerful and less audacious.

Diane Arbus, whom Kathryn deemed the ‘grandmother’ of the artists featured in her presentation, in fact holds a nearly opposite viewpoint from Lee. She once said of her pictures, “What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s…. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.”

Arbus divided her subjects into two categories: ‘freaks’ and ‘normals.’ She preferred the ‘freaks.’ These were people born with peculiarities, as Arbus might say, and included, but were not limited to: transgender individuals, little people, twins, and long-term in-facility psychiatric patients. Arbus explained that her ‘freak’ subjects had already overcame their trauma; that they had already passed their test. They were un-masked. Thus, in an intimate, square format with frontal lighting, Arbus’s work revealed the cracks in the masks of the ‘normals’ and the insignia of the alleged flaws of the ‘freaks.’

“Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the  street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. It’s just   extraordinary that we should have been given these peculiarities. Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes  out like you intend it.”

Diane Arbus, “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park,  New York City”  (1962)

Cindy Sherman (born 1954), cast as the mother in Kathryn’s Drama of Identity, produced work quite discernible from Arbus’s. She was famous for photographing herself, often in bright color, in a variety of socially charged masks. Her two most well-known bodies of work were Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) and History Portraits (1988-1990). The former was a series of images of the artist dressed as some of the roles B-movie actresses might play. Her History Portraits likewise feature Sherman as the model, but with reproductions of famous paintings as the subject. Neither being a set of self-portraits, Sherman’s mask  is a self-fabricated fictional person in each of these photographs. The mask she wears makes her a type. Her identity is abandoned, and that of the mask is created.


Along with aforementioned Nikki S. Lee, Kathryn named Gillian Wearing, Kimiko Yoshida, and Jillian Mayer the daughters in the Drama of Identity. Wearing, (whose work was also mentioned in the Persona piece), often photographs her masked self as Sherman does, but her masks are literal, silicone structures. Yoshida creates square, often nearly monochromatic images, of herself in masks of historical figures, artistic icons, social representations, and even pop culture symbols. Her work frequently is made in series.

Below are two pieces from her bridal sequence (both of which were shown in Kathryn’s presentation).

Pokemon Bride
Pokemon Bride

El Dorado Bride
El Doradao Bride

Kathryn closed her lecture by showing a video by Jillian Mayer, an exciting contemporary video artist, so I will follow suit. While there is much room for analysis in this piece, it might be best to let it speak for itself. If this subject matter interests you, Kathryn is usually teaching a relevant art history course, and I’m sure she’d be open to impromptu discussions.

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