Behind the Mask

by Alice Kain, Assistant Registrar and Coordinator of Academic Initiatives

last edited on Mon. December 1 2014

There are artworks in the Smart Museum of Art’s 40th anniversary exhibition Carved, Cast, Crumpled that have hidden stories, histories, and parts. One object that offers a unique portal into the Smart’s collection is a mask created by the Chicago artist Roger Brown in 1974.

The Mask for the Chairman of the Board of Directors, to give the piece its full title, currently sits on a shelf next to other objects by the Chicago artists Karl Wirsum and Christina Ramberg. Roger Brown and Christina Ramberg were close friends and Brown modeled for her mask which is also on view in the exhibition hanging next to the Mask for the Chairman.

Brown’s Mask for the Chairman appears to be part building and part animal, with long leather cords hanging from the underside. The cords can be pulled to lift the two flaps over the eyes and the trunk like “nose.” The mask once graced the office wall of Brown’s partner the architect George Veronda. Together Brown and Veronda created a formidable collection of a variety of material that inspired them; such as folk and tribal art, pop and travel memorabilia, studio ceramics, artwork by self-taught and contemporary artists.

In 1996 Roger Brown gifted 40 artworks from their collection to the Smart Museum, this gift was credited as “The George Veronda Collection” in memory to George, who had passed away in 1984. This significant gift included artwork by several self-taught artists such as Joseph Yoakum, Martin Ramierez, and Aldobrando Piacenza; these works remain some of the most important pieces in the Smart’s collection of the outsider art genre.

Exceptional examples of Brown’s own artwork also came into the Smart Museum with the gift, including the oil painting Viewing the Auroral Drapery. This painting depicts a view of buildings against a dramatic horizon complete with an iceberg. Formally the Auroral Drapery painting can offer a comparison to the Mask for the Chairman—the subject matter of architecture, the color of the façade, the rendering and stylization of the silhouettes in the windows are all strikingly similar visual motifs between Brown’s two-dimensional and three-dimensional works.

There is another interesting object in the Veronda Collection which could be used in comparison to the Mask for the Chairman. The gift also contains eight masks from Africa and Papua New Guinea, including a mask made by the Dogon peoples of Mali. This 20th century mask is covered in cowrie shells, mirrors, and plastic beads clearly showing the Dogon’s use of modern materials within the tradition of mask making. The Dogon mask is mainly geometric, rectilinear forms being the dominant shapes, but there is a sense of an anthropomorphic presence as ears and eyes are also depicted.

It is the mirrors in particular that can strike the viewer’s interest; they act as a decorative element but simultaneously reflect back the audience’s gaze. These mirrors can also provide a sense of space, even of a vision beyond the surface of the mask itself. Perhaps this could be said to be akin to a window as a void to see in to and out from simultaneously. Does Brown’s mask echo these sentiments? Could the mirror and window offer a similarity in the mask’s function? We may not see ourselves directly in Brown’s windows, but we can certainly see individual human characters recognizable by their hairstyles, clothing and activities.

Roger Brown’s gift of the George Veronda Collection provided the Smart Museum with depth and context to read his artworks and interests through. It is with such generous gifts that the Smart’s collection can be used by students, scholars, artists and art lovers to add meaning to the artworks that they are interested in. Since 2009 the Roger Brown Mask for the Chairman of the Board of Directors and several of Veronda Collection African masks have been regularly studied by the Art History introductory course (ART101) for the module on African Art, which looks at modern collection practices and display strategies of African art and objects.