“In March 2020, Los Angeles-based artist Richard Nielsen began painting portraits of people in their COVID-19 face masks. On view at MASS MoCA, This is Not a Gag includes his first set of 49 paintings. Presented in a Zoom-like grid, the series shows the determination behind the eyes of artists, writers, and friends of the artist and MASS MoCA. The subject’s faces may be covered, but variations in masks and individual expressions speak volumes about our lives today. These paintings are not about the pandemic, per se, but about the fiercest and finest parts of human nature.
As the pandemic grew, masks became political – anti-maskers abounded, while others took donning masks not only as a smart health move but also as a sign of shared civic responsibility. This added meaning allows Nielsen to imbue his subjects’ personalities and beliefs into their portraits. For Nielsen, the mask creates an abstract surface on the face, one that his subjects can use for self-expression, while also creating a space that he can play with in paint. The images are full of individuality, showing the essence of each human, even when we cannot see their whole face.” — MASS MoCA
Images: Richard Nielsen, This is Not A Gag, 2020. Courtesy the artist.
When Nielsen shared the first images of this series with MASS MoCA’s senior curator, Denise Markonish, she started to gather mask selfies from museum employees, exhibiting artists, and friends. Nielsen’s paintings are hung in a large grid, like an epic Zoom call, a temporarily catalyzed community, united yet apart. Exhibiton was curated by Denise Markonish.
Images courtesy MASS MoCA.