The Trouble with Men

My One-Man Show of Portrait Masks
of Famous Men, Chicago, 1990
I believe the idea for this series could claim multiple origins, including Judy Chicago's Dinner Party (tributes to famous women,) the ancient Greeks' devotion to personal or household gods, the veneration of patron saints with altars and iconography, interests in the men's movement, and aspects of Gay Spirituality. It was also the culmination of my attempts at developing masks as an art form, and it was gratifying and affirming when this particular group of masks was so well received during the opening night at Prairie Avenue Gallery in Chicago, May 4, 1990.
The show was titled The Trouble with Men, Personal Gods, an Exhibit of Masks as Icons
My presumption was to try and symbolically reflect and pay homage to these 14 men, whom I greatly admired and who, in one way or another, inspired me.  At the time,
I wrote: "Each of my Personal Gods had his 'trouble' and each, in my eyes, is more the god for it." The process: I either cast faces of men I thought looked like a particular man, or I created a mask as a hand held parade icon. (One is a puppet-like full length body mask.) Most of the masks included a prop to further reflect and express the person. The materials were  plaster-of-paris, foam rubber and other highly mixed media. For the exhibit, each of the masks with any props was installed in the context of an altar. (Alas, there are almost no usable photos of the altars. One is shown above. There is a video.) Here on this site the focus is on the masks themselves and any of the included props.

Following are the 14 Tributes:
Oscar Wilde                                                                                                                                 #1

He wrote delightful, magical children's stories and poems, and he wrote scathingly witty social commentary in his plays. The word Gay wasn't used as it is today, but Wilde was wild and gayer than Gay. Today he's thought of as a tragic Gay figure, the victim of repression and oppression which snuffed out his considerable and formidable talents.

On the left, he was devoted to beauty, form, and nature reflecting art. On the right, he was defeated not so much by his own sins — as in The Picture of Dorian Gray — but by the sins inflicted on him by others.
His prop is a dazzling flowering cane. After a visit to the Pope, he quipped: "When I knelt before his Holiness my cane burst into bloom!" What could be Gayer than that?
Ludwig van Beethoven                                                                                                             #2
He was obsessive and unkempt; exuberant and full of humor. This is a tribute to his Ninth Symphony, spiritually soaring music which he wrote while completely deaf. A true Titan, he conducts with a lightning bolt. It is an ode to joy and peace. It was performed amid the ruins of the Berlin wall, and it continues to thunder around the globe.
St. Francis of Assisi                                                                                                                   #3
Legend* says Francis asked a rich woman to beg a patch of cloth from every beggar she helped at her door, and then to make a cloak for him of the tattered pieces. In this way he would carry the world's poverty with him everywhere. The mask adds this to the legend: while praying in the forest, a fantastic bird, the Holy Spirit alights on his staff and the patchwork in his hood suddenly reflects the splendor of the divine in his face. For centuries this humble brother to the poor has inspired people of every nation with his mystical, generous, never-ending joy.




*Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel Saint Francis
John Keats                                                                                                                                  #4



He led an ordinary life and died very young, yet in a scant five years he wrote a major body of work which was to set him on the bench with the immortal poets.
The mask represents Ode to a Nightingale.
His cup here is filled not with hemlock and death, but with the turbulent, visceral stuff of which true poetry is made. 
A simple son of the earth, so enamored of the romantic, he left us with a vast array of hopeful and highly sensual visions.
Richard Burton                                                                                                                          #5
In college, I wanted to be an actor's actor like him. An international star of stage and screen, a much talked about celebrity. A faded dream had me being close friends with him and Elizabeth! Here he is as Hamlet with a startled expression. Volatile, hard-drinking, magnificently gifted sweet prince... In the end, he wondered why so much so fast so difficult and so glorious had all happened to him.

The mask is designed as a tall parade icon, a stage set and a movie screen as well.
Ricky Nelson                                                                                                                               #6
In the 1950s, on the Ozzie and Harriet family TV show he was the super-cute quick-witted son and younger brother. We watched him grow up on TV as he became one of rock music's top stars, rivaling Elvis Presley with 35 million records sold. Although the Beatles called him a major musical influence, his fans just didn't seem to want him to move on and he reflects that in Garden Party,  a world-weary song that says "you can't please everybody so you got to please yourself." He died when his plane crashed December 31, 1985.

This is also a parade icon, a hand held mask, reminiscent of the front of a juke box, depicting a teen angel and his dreamy role in the film Rio Bravo.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy                                                                                                         #7
The Return of King Arthur — for a brief shining moment, that's what many believed. The mask gives him a crown of technology that would take us to the moon. His Excalibur here is the rocket that would do it. All of it symbolizing reaching for new heights. But difficult and complicated world politics tarnished the gleam of his presidency and it was all brought to a horrible end. Yet in spite of all the still-debated controversies, and all the personality issues, he remains for me a symbol of the possibility of attaining ideals far greater than ourselves, the ability to soar once more.
James Baldwin                                                                                                                           #8
He said Blacks — and all people of color in America — have long been pressured, even forced to view this country through White American yes. But through his writing, Baldwin said he set out to turn White America upside down, so that it could see itself clearly from an entirely new perspective. His contention: although the roots of Black America may be in Africa, Blacks have been here in America for more than 400 years making monumental contributions to American life and culture. In the face of that, segregation and prejudice are horrible ironies. America's very diversity, he said, is the key to our survival. And if we don't see it, we will all be lost together.

In his time, critics said the fact that he was Gay — and dared to write about it — and that he left to live in Paris diminished his message. Today, many find those facts irrelevant and are taking an entirely new look at his clear prophetic voice. To me, the fact that he was Gay and wrote of it makes his voice all the more focused and fearless.
Tennessee Williams                                                                                                                  #9
His searing observations of life were deeply influenced by the plight of his sister, Rose.  Against his will she was diagnosed as insane, treated with the now illegal lobotomy, and placed in the home for the permanently shattered. He wandered his own uncharted paths of frustration and despair. It's all in his brilliant canon of work: now classic plays, poems, stories, books... a compilation of human suffering and desire.

The symbol of the rose appeared often in his work and is reflected in this mask with his two most vivid characters, Stanley and Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire. I've returned the unicorn's horn lost in The Glass Menagerie, and show him ever smiling and laughing through everything. Like many of his generation, being Gay was to be kept secret, and yet ironically it allowed him to express the ruthlessness of oppression.
Alberto Giacometti                                                                                                                   #10
When I first saw Giacometti's stark, elongated  cast metal figures at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s, I stood mesmerized in the dark for they were standing high in a void, dimly lit from above. The figures represented the individual, solid yet stretched beyond limits, fragile yet resilient. Raw spirit walking through fear, surviving with dignity. This puppet-like body mask, mostly of foam rubber, was patterned after his metal figures. When I tried it on it evoked the most astonishing sense of space and time, endless yearning.
Kenneth Grahame                                                                                                                     #11
My favorite children's book is The Wind in the Willows, my favorite chapter in it is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Here I have cast this shy old British banker as his own character, the gentle piper Pan, god of the little animals who lived by the river -- a vision emerging as if from the tree bark, mossy, serene, a god of the earth. The book's timeless philosophies grew out of stories Grahame created for his fragile son Alastair. More than 100 years have passed and still the lyrical tales of Ratty and Mole, Otter and Badger comfort young and old alike...

Mole raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the panpipes only just fallen away from the parted lips. Crouching to the earth, Ratty and Mole bowed their heads and did worship. When the vision vanished, they heard only the sound of the wind playing in the reeds...

— adapted from The Wind in the Willows
Nat King Cole                                                                                                                             #12
He was a jazz piano virtuoso, but it was his caressing velvet voice that sailed him to the top of the charts. He was really the first Black performer given his own television show. Yet the producers, to their shame, thought he was "too Black" and coaxed him to use "light" makeup. Cole endured this indignity because he felt he was breaking new ground, and many said he bowed too far. Although bigots horrifyingly harassed him for daring to buy a home in Beverely Hills for  his family, he seemed to remain above it, a sweet, gentle, generous man, trying to change opinions a song at a time.

When sponsors eventually backed out and caused his show to be cancelled, he said, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."

This is another icon mask that can be held in front of the face. In it are symbols of some of Cole's  most famous song covers: Paper Moon, Nature Boy, and yes Mona Lisa with the ever present smile, and I tried to set things right by also putting an abstract face in a velvet black Stardust night sky.
The Prophet Samuel                                                                                                                 #13
The mask expresses the moment when, in a rage, Samuel tells the people they must have no king but God (represented by the white serpent guarding twelve pearls.) When the people insist, God actually gives in and Samuel finally relents. At God's prompting, he anoints Saul as king, and when Saul does not turn out well, he anoints David, who also turns out to be quite a problem. Samuel had a lot of trouble with men.

For me, Samuel is a symbol of standing for what you believe yet being willing to see things from another point of view.

Frederico Garcia Lorca                                                                                                            #14
For me, this  was the center piece of the exhibit. A very elaborate and surreal stage-like setting of a mask to represent one of Spain's -- one of the world's -- most gifted poets.  His surreal imagery expressed in poetry and plays (including amazing puppet plays) was haunting, cryptic, and seemed to speak directly to the subconscious — parallels to the paintings of Dali, his one-time friend and possibly lover.

Today we'd call him closeted, and sadly he was not at ease with his being Gay — a word he would not have used to describe himself...
I set the mask on a roadside cross because during the Spanish upheaval when they were trying to rid the country of "intellectuals" he was brutally dragged out to a roadside and shot. The little puppet stage (above right) presents a young Gypsy boy suddenly appearing, scowling, at Lorca's window when he was a child, and it was that image, he said, that inspired all his work.
These images, from his poems: Upon a sky of daisies go I and give me your lunar glove, your other glove of grass, my love!  I tried to give sur-reality to, because of all his work, it's the "little" poems I like best; the ones that sing mystical secrets and take me to hidden corners of my soul.