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COVER STORY

Stepping Out of Character

The art of the mask and the stories they tell.

July 05, 1998|Lewis Segal | Dance Critic

Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they're not, well, criticizing? They're a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to 'girl' singers. Go figure.

With that in mind we thought we'd indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they're not even getting paid to do it.

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"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth."

--Oscar Wilde

Nearly a quarter-century ago, I bought my first mask: the portrait of a deeply wrinkled, almost gray-skinned old man. He was carved in wood with a tense, open mouth as if to show wheezing or constant low-level pain and finished off with thin strands of horsehair loosely braided over the top of his forehead and sticking out of his face to form a scraggly beard and mustache.

I immediately recognized this man as a character from the classic Japanese noh theater, but my purchase had nothing to do with a longtime interest in Asian drama. No, a more basic impulse caused me to take the mask home: It was alive. The smallest shifts in lighting or viewing angle made it subtly smile or scowl, look bitter or forlorn. Even hanging on my wall, without a master-actor to physicalize the bleak vision at the core of noh expression, its changing countenance spoke to me about enduring the inevitable, and most of all about the weight of time on a human face.

It's still on my wall, but now I think of it as a prophetic mirror reflecting in advance the deterioration of my own increasingly gray, wrinkled and scraggly countenance--though thus far, alas, I have not grown so strikingly thin. And it has plenty of company: More than a hundred faces made of wood, metal, stone, straw, cloth, hide, fur, ceramic, shells, coconut husks or papier ma^che--including masks that are not masks at all but drums or fountain-mouths or wedding veils that caught my imagination in the same way.

They all ended up sharing my home because of their own sense of life and ability to speak--though some of them talk to me only about the places where I found them and the disintegration of the traditional cultures they represent. There's a small, sly red and green monkey face ornamented with silver foil, for example, that will always remind me of a gentle old mask-maker wearing a Mao coat in a Sichuan village that's scheduled to vanish forever when the Chinese government raises the level of the Yangtze River sometime before 2009.

And there's also a 10-foot-tall New Caledonia ancestor figure that may not depict any ancestor of mine but somehow connects me to Pacific traditions nearly obliterated by the same brand of intolerance that tried to obliterate my own forebears back in the Ukraine.

Making connections is definitely what masks do best. By wearing one or sometimes just looking deeply enough, man "opens the floodgates of instinct, and the ghosts of his animal origins arise from the depths," wrote European art historian Oto Bihalji-Merin. Maybe that's why I need them: to forge instinctual links to more primal value systems than I could otherwise reach alone. Certainly because many of my masks are souvenirs or replicas rather than authenticated folk art or fine art, they don't really add up to a collection so much as a databank of images and voices--voices that often mock the very idea of serious collecting.

Looking at an artfully eroded antelope mask from Mali, for instance, I can remember standing in a hillside Dogon village and asking the seller when it was carved. "Oh, in my grandfather's time," he replied solemnly--and an instant later collapsed in wild laughter along with nearly everyone else within earshot.

If this mask tells me truths about rude African honesty and my own foolishness, there are others I can't bear to listen to just yet. The gas mask from World War I, for example, with the scent of noxious fumes still inside. (Did a soldier die in it?) Or the burial mask of a heartbreakingly young Egyptian from the time of Antony and Cleopatra who left no trace on this earth except his image on my wall. Or, above all, the blackened outline of a face from Guerrero with a green snake emerging from the mouth: a viper housed inside a rotting corpse.

Make no mistake: Masks have power, not merely the power to inspire fear or belief in some cultures and imaginative release in ours but sometimes something more. With their fearsome tusks and towering pagoda headdresses, masks of the ten-headed demon king from the Thai "Ramayana" might be at the top of the list--and I was warned not to take one home without placing a very inexpensive 2-inch "enemy" mask nearby to neutralize its power.

Did I scoff at the warning as primitive superstition and install an un-neutralized demon in my mask menagerie? Hardly. My newly acquired New Caledonia ancestors raised no fools. And anyone late for an important meeting whose shoelace breaks or car won't start knows that the material world is out to get us and waits till we're most vulnerable. So I opted for 2 inches of insurance and I haven't been sorry.

When you live with masks, you learn, first of all, to listen.

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