The Mask & The Mirror at Leila Heller

by Sarah Hassan, December 2011

The faces of artists stare out from their self-portraits on the walls of the newly-opened Leila Heller Gallery in Chelsea, inviting a game of “Guess Who?” as the viewer takes in The Mask and the Mirror, a group show curated by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Neshat, known for her video installations and photography which address socio-sexual politics within the religious culture of the Middle East, has assembled an impressive cast of characters which includes Marina Abramović, Matthew Barney, Youssef Nabil, Cindy Sherman, Shahzia Sikander and a dozen other famed players in the visual art world. While some are internationally renowned, other artists in Neshrat’s roster are just beginning to make their mark, and in a show concerned with identity and self-expression, this seems an appropriate venue for their American debut. Neshat has always been interested in body politics and turning the artist’s gaze inward. This is nurtured by her study of self-portraits in 1993 that would become her acclaimed Women of Allah series. Women of Allah, which had Neshat dressed as an Iranian revolutionary, Arabic written on her face, hands and body as she held a rifle beneath her chador, was a stark representation of feminist struggle in the face of religious and political ideology, a recurring theme in her now substantial body of work.

Unafraid to mirror a seemingly intolerant society while hiding behind the guise of nameless up-risers, Neshat’s curation at Leila Heller Gallery is an expert, albeit a simple one. Some of the artists she includes are well-known for their self-portraiture, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, whose three works in the show include the haunting yet endearing portrait of the artist gripping a skull in his tight fist while gazing sagely at the camera, and Marina Abramović, whose simple self-portrait while holding a falcon begs the viewer to question who is the hunter and who is the hunted. Matthew Barney poses in military garb from his Cremaster series, and Cindy Sherman, no stranger to fantastic fictions, wears an outlandish yellow wig and clown make-up, which exaggerates her upward gaze. While most photographs in the show are rendered in black and white, the use of color does not go unnoticed, especially in pieces by Youssef Nabil, whose Kodachrome blues of the sky behind the pyramids in Cairo and the water along Istanbul create a pleasing contrast to the abundance of silver gelatin. Easily one of the strongest pieces included is Sartorial Anarchy, Untitled #4 by Iké Udé, which has the artist in a golfer-cum-matador ensemble of varying yellows, greens and reds, while he stands before a potted plant and bugle, a fanciful hat of flowers perched precariously on his head. The composition is classic in its elegance and geometric design, as if Udé is posing for a court portrait.

Primarily concerned with how Western artists interpret the lens when directed on themselves as opposed to those from the Middle East and elsewhere, Neshat has assembled an eccentric group of artists who are unafraid to confront both the material and the psychological. It may come as no surprise that those from the Middle East tend to view themselves in light of political conflict and staples of country and culture, an avenue Neshat herself has traveled down more than once, while Western artists focused on the inward struggle of mortality versus vanity. Allowing each artist to gaze at each other, Neshat has created a silent dialogue between trained cameras daring the subject to dig deeper and reveal nothing, or else stay on the surface and question everything.

The Mask & The Mirror
3 November—21 December 2011
Leila Heller Gallery
568 West 25th Street
New York