Where do COVID-19 masks and art intersect? Denver University, it turns out

by Nick Gonzales

Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’re sick of wearing masks everywhere. But as far as we can tell, they’re still very necessary and not going anywhere anytime soon.

So we might as well have fun with them and use them as vehicles for self expression. That’s the idea, at least, behind the “Mask” exhibition at the Vicki Myrhen Gallery at the University of Denver. The exhibit features the work of 41 artists representing a range of disciplines — all of whom are putting their messages where their mouth is, so to speak.

[html:6]When it comes to pieces that are simple but chock full of meaning, our favorite is probably Michael Espinoza’s “How to Survive a Plague.” The mask is made from condom wrappers, drawing a direct comparison between the current epidemic and the HIV/AIDS epidemic (which, come to think of it, is also still a current epidemic).

[image:2]On a purely playul aesthetic level, we love Christina Rodo’s “Covidus,” which takes the form of a wool octopus that has attached itself to the wearer’s face. Combine it with Felicia’s Murray’s “Our Dying Reefs,” a felt mask depicting coral that covers not just the lower face but also the left shoulder, and you’ve got a whole aquatic theme going on. Liz Sexton’s “Porcupinefish” also represents the sea — this exhibition in Denver sure does showcase a lot of oceanic art — but the giant papier-mache puffer might strain the definition of what makes something a “mask,” covering the entire head like a helmet. (We’re also just a tiny bit weirded out by the fact that “Octomask,” by Heather Cox also takes the form of a mouth-bound octopus wrapped around a head. Y’all have some tentacle-based issues to deal with.)

[image:3]Some of the masks are deadly serious — “Incalculable Loss” is made from hospital tags bearing the names and locations of Americans killed by COVID-19. Others force levity as blatantly as possible — Scott Burgees’ “For the Unseen Smiles” is adorned with a bunch of plastic crescents representing the smiles we can’t see on our masked neighbors these days.

[image:4]“BYOO (Bring Your Own Oxygen)” by Tracy Tomko has a sci-fi aspect to it, as two vaguely bong-like tubes with plants inside descend from the mouth-covering. Perhaps the simplest, though, is “Mouthpiece” by Tobias Fike. Beyond the mouth part of the mask, it is just an unadorned, megaphone-shaped cone. We’re pretty sure everyone can hear the message the artist is trying to convey with it loud and clear.

If you find yourself in Denver on a weekend afternoon in the next month, that’s the time to visit the exhibition. After all, that’s the only time you can. Adding an extra degree of synchronicity to the exhibit is the fact that during the rest of the week, the gallery is being used as extra socially-distant classroom space for the university.

The “Mask” exhibition continues through Dec. 1. Admission is free, but advance appointments are required to facilitate COVID safety practices. If you can’t make it to Denver but you’re still interested, the gallery is hosting a virtual artist panel discussion at 5 p.m. on Nov. 5.

Nick Gonzales

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