Eyes peer over brightly colored swaths of cloth, handkerchiefs, medical masks and air-purifying respirators. A few of the masks are plain and store bought. Others are homemade with colorful patterns or prints on them. Some have messages emblazoned across them. One is crocheted and looks like a coral reef. Another is a gas mask.
Hung side-by-side in a grid, the masked faces are suspended in time, staring out at the viewer. Are they waiting? Are they listening? Are they daydreaming? Is it a meeting over Zoom?
Richard Nielsen’s latest work — portraits painted in the months following the arrival of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders — is not a commentary on wearing face masks, the pandemic or Zoom conference calls.
But it’s hard not to think of all three when viewing his new exhibition, “This Is Not A Gag,” opening Saturday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
For the artist, the portraits represent resilience in a time of uncertainty.
“This is right now. This will be ‘right now’ for a while,” Nielsen said Monday, from his home in California, during an interview over Zoom with Mass MoCA curator Denise Markonish and this reporter.
And, he said, “It was a reaction. It was important to capture the moment we were living in. It was therapy for me; I was doing this all throughout lockdown.”
The series of 77 portraits — 49 of which are on display (48 portraits and one self-portrait) — began nearly eight months ago. California was days away from going into lockdown, residents had just started wearing masks in public and Nielsen was out purchasing extra gas for a backup generator at his home. That’s when he caught a glimpse of his reflection.
“I thought, ‘That’s us now,’” he said. The portraits began with a single selfie taken with his camera. He painted it. Soon, he had a total of five self portraits, painted from five different selfies.
He began painting selfies of people in his immediate circle — fellow artists, his parents and his partner, artist Lauren Bon — and quickly had 10 more paintings. All of which he was sharing with Markonish, who had just then, recently visited his studio before returning to North Adams. (Nielsen, Bon and artist Tristan Duke, have a series of prints, “Hoosic: The Beyond Place,” on display at the museum.)
“When we first embarked on this; when [Richard] first started sending me images, we had no idea that we’d be open [now] and be able to get them here and show them. I said to [him]: ‘Let’s show them here. I don’t know what that means yet.’ We just marched on,” Markonish said. “I think that’s one of the things about artists in this moment, the resilience of just marching on, not knowing what the outcomes are going to be. But, at the same time, knowing this is work that needs to get done.”
Nielsen added: “I think that opportunity, to face the unknown and then forge your way into it, it almost dictates its inevitability. You kind of conjure the future — pursuing this stuff — in a weird way. I do think that’s what artists do. I do think artists will react or embody something in a way that then makes it come alive. I must say that it’s something I have learned in my experience in working with my partner Lauren. She is someone that manifests that and has taught me to ‘keep going; just do it.’”
Markonish began collecting selfies to send to Nielsen. Selfies taken by her fellow curators, museum staff, community members and artists associated with Mass MoCA, including Nick Cave, Marcos Ramirez and Helga Davis (a current artist-in-residence). The only requirements were that the photograph had to be a selfie and the individual had to be wearing a mask.
“Once Denise came on board, it was like a tsunami,” Nielsen said.
He got to work, painting from the photographs.
“I didn’t make one-to-one copies. I took liberties with the backgrounds; I personalized them. It wasn’t just about rote copying; I wanted the portraits to transcend the photographs,” Nielsen said.
Markonish said he “uncannily captured the essence” of each person.
“The thing with selfies, is that in them, the person is revealing a part of themselves,” Nielsen said. “An incredible amount of information can be revealed.
“Of course, when someone was taking a selfie for this, it wasn’t an act. It was done quickly. It was different than the vacuous [stylized] selfies [seen on social media.]”
He did not, he said, change the masks the individuals wore. “The masks were already creative. I didn’t feel the need to change them. The masks spoke clearly; so, it was all about the eyes. In classical portraiture it’s all about the eyes.”
Painting in the moment brought relief and joy for the artist, who found himself painting six or seven portraits at once in his studio.
“When the lockdown [in California] began, we thought all of this would last about three months,” Nielsen said of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Other than riding my bike and painting, I don’t have anything else to do. This has been a gift.”
But, he said, the series of portraits and ultimately the exhibition would not have happened without Markonish’s willingness to collaborate with artists.
“It’s a unique experience and opportunity,” Nielsen said. “I don’t know of any other place that this could have happened [than Mass MoCA]. The idea of being able to react to something so quickly, install it and have [the pandemic] still going on ... that’s something that doesn’t happen.”
He said the collaboration with Markonish also led to displaying the paintings in a Zoom-like grid.
“It’s 2020 in an image,” Markonish said of the finished project.
And while Nielsen has seen his exhibition in photographs, he hopes to make the trip to North Adams in the near future to see it in person.
“I think the idea of it being real — that people can attend in person — for a lot of people around the country is a bit of a weird idea,” he said. “For it to really exist in the world seems significant right now, at least for me it does. Participating so heavily in the lockdown, as we have, there’s an abstraction to the idea that it’s open.”