Monday, July 10, 2006

The Mask: (Part III).
When Basquiat was performing with Gray (his music group), "He seemed to be its artistic persona." This one sentence from Phoebe Hoban in her biography, Basquiat:A Quick Killing in Art, moreorless sums up the general approach to Basquiat. As an artist, he is forever linked by critics to Warhol, as if the mask was all that Basquiat was and could be. He was the black persona attached to the white art world (as symbolizeded by the iconic Warhol, an artist whose mask was everywhere but inner-face nowhere. Even Warhol's Diaries/memoirs smile with artifice). Creating art in a world where everything was constructed, where art, as Warhol put it, was "Cash and Carry", and money rather than the soul talked, Basquiat became another construct, his life but a surface. Basquiat's artistic achievements are lost to the mask, be it the gossip surrounding his life, which is preferred to worthwhile appreciation of the art, or Schnabel's superficial persona film Basquiat (1996).

Basquiat himself was aware, however, of another reality. One where the sub-conscious played itself out in real life events. In the early part of his career, Annina Nosei gave him studio space. This was a dark basement under her SoHo gallery. Here, Basquiat became (not the mad white woman in the attic) but the black madman in the cellar. His life position showed what the black artist was supposed to be: wild, primitive, sexual, the buried and hidden side of creativity. To this subterranean realm, the white world could descend with curiousity and leave unscathed with primal art. It was a descent into the underworld. What Basquiat did in his art, however, was to reverse the process. His canvases/masks began to reflect the ascent from Hell. The mask, discarded by White psychology as a mere pretence for the outside world, became something else. The mask became a collection of inner energies: a second-face made from within. Just as Basquiat played with the art world in real life. He was the noble savage who could wear an Armani suit. A wonderful camp persona. So in his painting, he rips that mask apart and replaces it with another: a mind re-constructing itself to seek self-identity. Basquiat's art, in its day, renounced the posturing of pseudo-masculine abstract expressionism, which saw words as anathema , and returned a literal belief in vodon, his Haitian roots, and the magic of words. The result is an art about the fragility of the psyche.

The image below is a painting by an 11 year old. He was given a watercolour portrait of Basquiat, a persona-graph, and then asked to use his own love of Basquiat and his own experiences as a black male to create his inner turmoil. For a day, he scribbled and talked, like Basquiat who spent one of his First Nights drawing "alchemical signs " (Hoban) on the gallery walls. This was his attempt "to put on a mask against racism."


Id it is said...

A great analysis of the 'persona'!

As you point out in part two, masks are of varying kinds, but what intrigues me is why do artists don these facades? Is it because they're afraid to self-revealate, or is it because they're master manipulators and wish to alter or direct the perspective of their audience. Is the mask a shield of the cowardly or the flaunt of a conniver.

eshuneutics said...

Glad you enjoyed it! I think I agree with what you suggest through your question. With Warhol, the mask was pure manipulation. There is a famous portrait of Andy where all you see is his hands and wig. The joke is usually explained like this. The hands deny the face, but the wig identifies Warhol. The false identifies him. But there is rather more. Manipulation comes from manus/hand. The hands gesture at Warhol's act of manipulation. Basquiat had a fragile mask, the world of manipulation wasn't really him. I think that modern artists have a sense of the pantomime mask: the comedy hides the fact that they often don't have much to say. The mask compensates for a lack of depth.