As a portrait artist, all I can do now is reconstruct the mysteries of who you are under the mask.
By Riva Lehrer
Ms. Lehrer is a visual artist and writer.
Today’s sightings: red paisley mask, pleated pink flowered mask, black VOTE mask, yellow smiley-face mask, Etsy bedazzled mask, Spiderman mask. Lots of surgical-blue paper masks. A few hard-shell N95s. One or two navy bandit gaiters. (Me, I’m under the grinning-wolf mask.) Most masks hide who we are and let us try on different identities, but these disguises give me clues to the wearer underneath.
As an artist, I appreciate the variety and wit of these choices. But all the color and texture in the world can’t obscure the fact that masks are both saving my life and ruining it.
This is not a plea to take yours off. For all that’s holy, don’t. I even double-mask: There’s a surgical version taped to my face under the cloth mask du jour.
The thing is, I’m the last person to want faces to disappear. I’m a portrait artist. Faces are my whole life. I think of the human face as a theater that performs the actor inside, in flickers and puckers and pulls of 42 tiny muscles, in the rise and fall of blood that swirls with our emotions. I paint the glint of bone under the skin, the subtle glow of fat along the cheeks and chin, the grooves that descend from nose to mouth that tell me whether you laugh more often than you growl. Now we pass on the sidewalk like spies from distant countries. I try to reconstruct the mysteries under the mask, but there’s no satisfying my face hunger.
This hunger is deeper than aesthetic fascination; it goes all the way back to my earliest years. I grew up in the hospital. Because I was born with spina bifida and underwent dozens of surgeries by the time I was 5, I was constantly surrounded by white-coated doctors and white-uniformed nurses, each of whom were in charge of my body. Each made me fear for what would happen next: Was I going back to surgery? Being sent for painful tests? Was I ever going home? I had no authority to say no, so I learned to read the truth in grown-up faces no matter what their words might say. I studied their subtle signals with the passionate dedication of a Talmudic scholar.
For me, each mask is a small but painful theft. The virus has stolen your face from me; it’s even stolen my face from myself. I use my face to mitigate people’s reactions to my body — my curved spine, my orthopedic boots, my silver-red hair, my limp. I beam out my expressions — and my words — to defend myself against harassment. Against ignorance. Against being ignored. Now my mask muffles my voice, kidnaps my face and reduces my body to a diagnosis.
All that is difficult enough, but how can I convey the misery of being a portrait artist during a pandemic? For 30 years, I’ve depicted people who experience stigma. My subjects have been mocked, threatened, demeaned because of the way they look or move or enact their identities. I paint to make them visible as they truly are, as bearers of iconoclastic beauty. Portraiture is the purpose of my life.
Visibility is crucial. Many of my collaborators — they are not mere subjects, but partners in creation — are disabled, or queer, or trans, or people of color; those, in fact, who are most at risk from Covid-19. Faces that aren’t just masked, but are entirely missing from public life. People who, like me, are at such medical risk that we have little choice but to shelter in place. We’ve been rendered invisible as well as vulnerable, our lives controlled by those who don’t mask, who are, to be frank, barefaced threats. How do we remind them that we exist from behind a million closed doors?
And so, my career has been upended. I can’t make portraits if I can’t let anyone into my studio. I’d need a space the size of an airplane hangar to create sufficient social distance, and even then, I’d have to view my subjects through a telescope. Not quite the intimate experience one wants when doing a portrait.
It took me a while to realize how much trouble I was in. When the virus hit, I had two partially completed drawings in progress — one of my college boyfriend, William Fugo; the other of the Cuban novelist Achy Obejas. Will is in Cleveland, Achy in San Francisco. We thought that we’d see each other again soon — surely this couldn’t last more than a month or two? By April, the answer was obvious. I reconciled myself to working from photographs and from “posing” sessions over Zoom, in which my laptop screen offered an aggravating fraction of reality.
Truth is, all portraits, no matter the medium, are only fragments. None can capture the complexity of a human life. The portraitist chooses the symbols and stories that represent the subject, in constrained gestures toward the immensity of biography. I suppose that a Zoom protocol is appropriate for our time. We’re all coping with enforced separation, trying to reassemble one another from fragments, from pictures on our screens and glimpses under the mask. A video session is communion and isolation rolled into one. A faux-intimacy that is our daily lot.
I decided to ask Alice Wong, a disability activist, to sit for me. She lives in San Francisco, 2,000 miles away. For weeks, we met over an unstable internet connection. Zoom vastly increases the accessibility of my practice — I can work with anyone, anywhere, no matter their disability or my own.
Yet, imagine that you’re used to the cloistered privacy of the studio, just you and your collaborator. You’ve carefully composed the lighting, designed the costuming and props. Imagine the hours of languorous conversation, the breaks for cookies and cocktails. And then, imagine that in the midst of posing, your subject shifts or gestures and it’s so unexpectedly beautiful that everything changes. That’s the thing about real life; it can take your breath away.
Now, shrink all that down to a 13-inch-by-9-inch digital portal. I can see Alice’s hallway behind her; a few framed pictures show me that she loves cats. My eyes aren’t great, so it doesn’t help that the lighting is dreadful and that the screen flattens any dimensional information and that all colors are distorted. Alice sends me pictures of herself in sunlight, so I can see the true shades of skin, hair and eyes, but those photos are so radically different that I fall back on what the laptop tells me, so that the feeling of Zoom won’t be lost.
After we finished, Alice interviewed me for her Disability Visibility Project. She described what it was like to pose; she was surprised by how much we talked, having assumed I would demand that she stay statue-still. I’ve learned to work around that, because the conversations I have with disabled people, queer and gender-variant people, with BIPOC collaborators, are the real point of my portraiture. The relationship between artist and subject always disappears in the museum, the gallery, but I truly want to know what transpires between the artist and the subject. My collaborators saved my life. I could not endure my own stigmatized body until I learned how they navigated the intricacies of embodiment.
But that was then.
These days, my studio is mostly silent — no whir of the pencil sharpener, no scratch of erasers, no slosh of water as I thin down a heavy glaze. Brushes tilt in their orderly jars. Pencils stand upright, graphite, charcoal, pastel. Three shelves of tubed acrylics lie inert as dead fish, while my wooden easel is a ship becalmed on flat seas. I carry my cup of coffee from the kitchen to the living room and don’t even bother to turn on the studio lights. A portrait on my easel provides the illusion of companionship. What a strange new loneliness.
I need you back.
But I can only have you back if you stay veiled, for now. Please, keep your masks on for just a while longer. Blue mask, red mask, purple mask — some day they will be laid aside, and we will meet in my studio in joy.
Riva Lehrer is an artist and the author of the memoir “Golem Girl.”
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