St. Louis Art Museum

All of the masks -- divorced from their contexts and shown isolated, often in darkness -- take on that peculiar quality of strangeness in this show, which extends even to the more familiar objects on display. In the "Offense/Defense" segment of the show, a contemporary motocross helmet, a fencing mask and a turn-of-the-century firefighter's respirator all look downright eerie. The 1964 hockey goaltender's mask looks less like game equipment than it does like some of the funerary masks in the show. The 1989 bullet-resistant mask looks intimidating enough to ward off forces much more powerful and less material than manmade ammunition.

The effect of mystery that surrounds each mask probably derives from the exhibition's central claim -- that masking is a virtually universal practice, found in all human cultures throughout history. This claim is both a revelation and a distraction. The exhibition does reveal startling connections among disparate cultures: We see, for example, that New Year's fertility masquerades are celebrated the world over, from China and Japan to Switzerland and Mexico, and we learn that throughout history, masking has primarily been a masculine activity, often involving men masquerading as women.

However, foregrounding the universality of masks can detract from an understanding of how they operate in specific cultures and periods. Within the "Theater" category, for example, which includes the Darth Vader mask from Star Wars, along with theatrical masks from Japan, ancient Rome, 19th-century Austria and the Bauhaus in Germany, specific cultural definitions of the "theatrical" are leveled out. In the case of the Darth Vader mask, the exhibition also has us bypass questions of market forces and the creation of salable icons (the mask is, after all, part of the single most lucrative franchise in Hollywood history) so that we take the mask at face value, so to speak; we focus only on what it suggests about some existential condition of "villainy."

Canada, Kwakwaka'wakw people, "Transformation Mask," late 19th century, wood and pigment, 16 by 13 by 9 inches
Canada, Kwakwaka'wakw people, "Transformation Mask," late 19th century, wood and pigment, 16 by 13 by 9 inches

Granted, we are given ample opportunity to learn specific historical information about each mask in the form of lengthy captions and text panels. But the aura of mystery and existentialism in the exhibition often tends to overpower that information. In addition, the print is small on these labels and panels, and it becomes extremely tiresome to strain the eyes and neck to read them; viewers who give up on the text and look only at the masks will definitely lose the historical dimension of the exhibition.

If Masks: Faces of Culture weren't such an ingenious show, it wouldn't stand up to, or even deserve, this close critical analysis. Only a well-engineered and curated show can muster up subtle effects that are worth critiquing in the first place. Although I find the show's "mystery" effect homogenizing and distracting, other viewers will probably love it, if they notice it at all. Either way, there is absolutely no reason to miss this show, a tour de force of art and anthropology the likes of which this city may not see again.

Masks: Faces of Culture is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum through Jan. 2.

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