Who Are Those Masked Men?

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The legendary American masked man the Lone Ranger hides his identity from outlaws behind a slash of black cloth, while most other superheroes conceal their virtuous characters under tight-fitting spandex. Americans are used to righteous men and women disguising their selflessness for the betterment of humankind. But non-heroes also wear masks: the executioners of old, and the night riders of the Ku Klux Klan—if you accept that a hood is a mask. A mask is thus a contradictory symbol: on the one hand, it connotes evil and fear; on the other, truth and justice. A mask is also an integral part of national ritual and mythic experience in virtually all cultures. In Mexico, on the Day of the Dead, ceremonial masks are worn to suggest a panoply of emotions and a range of personalities. Japanese theater masks, used to represent archetypal characters, alter the actor’s sex, emotions, and demeanor as makeup never could. In Lithuania, as in so many other once agrarian cultures, masks are used to transform their wearers into both beasts of burden and animals slaughtered for food.

Stasys Eidrigevicius (pronounced Stacease Edri-gaav-ichus), a Lithuanian artist living in Warsaw, Poland, was raised with the symbolic masks and other graphic totems indigenous to his birthplace, the farming town of Mediniskiai. After years of creating beguilingly visionary children’s-book illustrations, ex libris, and theater posters, he has become a zealous mask-maker, having produced hundreds of tribal face- and headpieces in varying degrees of complexity.Eidrigevicius’s masks are extensions of the macabre two-dimensional images from his native folklore and are cut with a sometimes chilling surrealism. Present in much of his work, particularly the masks, is the idea of a trapped bird, evidence of his own acceptance of isolation and powerlessness as an artist in a world where art has been ineffectual in achieving social change. While these masks are not designed as social commentaries, they do have the power to elicit a varying range of interpretations from viewers. They are at once the somewhat naive recollection of a Lithuanian childhood, the visual improvisations of a fertile imagination, and the emotionally charged statements of an artist whose surrealism is not conceit but a distinct way of life. The masks are not disguises, but rather, portraits of the artist’s inner self.

Below is a small sampling of masks. For more information go here and here and, let’s not forget, here. To read the exhibition statement below, click on the photograph.

(See yesterday’s Nightly Daily Heller for a Thanksgiving suggestion.)