- On view beginning November 7
- B6: The Robert W. Wilson Building
In March 2020, Los Angeles-based artist Richard Nielsen began painting portraits of people in their COVID-19 face masks. On view at MASS MoCA, This is Not a Gag includes his first set of 49 paintings. Presented in a Zoom-like grid, the series shows the determination behind the eyes of artists, writers, and friends of the artist and MASS MoCA. The subject’s faces may be covered, but variations in masks and individual expressions speak volumes about our lives today. These paintings are not about the pandemic, per se, but about the fiercest and finest parts of human nature.
Earlier in the winter of 2020, COVID-19 began to spread globally. In the United States, one after another, states started to close, issuing shelter-in-place orders and requiring face masks to be worn in public. Words like isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and pandemic became part of our daily vocabulary, and teleconferencing became our primary way to connect.
As the pandemic grew, face masks were nearly impossible to find, so people improvised, devising creative ways to keep the respiratory droplets at bay. From bandanas and hand-sewn creations to torn T-shirts and heavy-duty construction respirators, the masks, made to protect, also distance, covering our faces and our expressions. Yet they also acted like micro-billboards, allowing people to exercise their freedom of speech – with masks signaling “VOTE” or “Black Lives Matter” or “MAGA” – and express their individual style.
The impetus for Nielsen’s mask portraits came as he caught his reflection in a gas station window, realizing his masked face was the new normal. He immediately went home and started taking selfies – stretching his arms to model the social distance bubble that would become all too familiar. He then asked his friends and colleagues to send their own mask selfies for him to paint. His recent works address digital data and image transmission, with paintings inspired by photographs gathered from friends or social media, exploring how we relate to representation in the digital age.
As the pandemic continued, masks became political – anti-maskers abounded, while others took donning masks not only as a smart health move but also as a sign of shared civic responsibility. This added meaning allows Nielsen to imbue his subjects’ personalities and beliefs into their portraits. For Nielsen, the mask creates an abstract surface on the face, one that his subjects can use for self-expression, while also creating a space that he can play with in paint. The images are full of individuality, showing the essence of each human, even when we cannot see their whole face.
When Nielsen shared the first images of this series with MASS MoCA’s senior curator, Denise Markonish, she started to gather mask selfies from museum employees, exhibiting artists, and friends. Nielsen’s paintings are hung in a large grid, like an epic Zoom call, a temporarily catalyzed community, united yet apart. Participants include artists familiar to MASS MoCA such as Nick Cave, Bob Faust, Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Shaun Leonardo, Mary Lum, Kim Faler, and Helga Davis, alongside writers Phong Bui and Charles Schultz, MASS MoCA staff, and Los Angeles artists Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke, Suzanne Lacy, and more.
Nielsen paints with both gesture and assuredness, capturing a fire in the eyes of his subjects. In the end, his paintings remind us of human resiliency in a moment when everything feels out of control.
About the artist:
Richard Nielsen is an artist, photographer, and printmaker. With a background in lithography and etching, his photographic practice is informed by the expanded field of printmaking. Committed to offering printmaking opportunities to established and emerging artists, Nielsen’s Los Angeles studio, Untitled Prints & Editions, has hosted guest artists from around the world. Nielsen has shown his work recently at Lucas Reiner and DENK Galleries, both in Los Angeles, California. Additionally, Nielsen has been a close collaborator with Lauren Bon and her Metabolic Studio since 2007.
Programming at MASS MoCA is made possible in part by the Barr Foundation, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and Mass Cultural Council.
Richard Nielsen, This is Not A Gag, 2020
Top row: Bob Faust (artist/designer, Chicago, IL); Carly Golvinski (artist, Dover, NH); Christine Wertheim (artist, Los Angeles, CA/Melbourne, Australia); Denise Markonish (curator, MASS MoCA); Erica Wall (gallery director, MCLA, North Adams, MA); Helga Davis (singer/composer, New York, NY). Bottom row: Richard Nielsen (artist, Los Angeles, CA); Clarence Patton (LGBTQI and POC leadership professional, North Adams, MA); Nick Bennett (Curatorial assistant, Brooklyn Rail, NY); Joe Thompson (Director, MASS MoCA); Kambui Olujimi (artist, New York, NY); Kathryn Pruett (assistant registrar, MASS MoCA).
Courtesy of the artist