Additional Remarks By Charles Thurow Regarding the Decorative Masks Label

Today I received the following comments from my friend Charles Thurow, in response to the last three posts on the subject of Decorative masks and Donald Cordry’s book, Mexican Masks. Because his ideas allowed me to present a far more balanced discussion, I am pleased and honored to pass these further remarks along to you in a separate post. In next weeks blog, which will focus on the “Decorative” masks and related treasures of Mexican folk art in Cordry’s book, I will include some of the non-traditional masks from Charles Thurow’s collection. Because they are being honestly presented as contemporary creations, and not falsely as ancient cultural treasures, I will pointedly avoid calling Thurow’s masks decorative. The rest of this post was authored by Charles Thurow, from Chicago.

I want to congratulate Bryan for all of his work. It is great to move our understanding of Mexican masks back closer to the artists who created them. He gives those artists faces and names. I also appreciate his including some our discussion of the distinction between “dance masks” and “decorative masks.” Ever since Donald Cordry’s book came out, that discussion seems reductionist – “authentic” vs “scam.” Cordry’s book was so easy to attack that everyone wanted to shoot one of the fish in the barrel. I think of the book as a piece of folk art: a wonderful record of Indians telling stories to an aging anthropologist. It is a variation on Gary Larsen’s wonderful cartoon:

[Charles then included a Gary Larson cartoon, “Anthropologists! Anthropologists! My blogging program failed to import this image, nor was I able to include an effective link. Yet Google™ will take you there without any problem. I am sorry about that! Charles then resumed his remarks about Donald Cordry and his book—Mexican Masks.]

Setting aside the strange claims of the book, there are many of his masks that have been relegated to the “decorative” refuse pile that are amazing tour-de-force of imagination and carving. For example, take a look at those that Cordry’s lists as “possible devil masks.” I would love to know the story of their carvers and their artistic inspiration. Given the richness of the design, it seems unlikely that they sprung simply from Cordry’s predilections (as is often claimed). If they are not appropriate for an ethnographic museum, they do deserve to be in a contemporary art museum. They fit so interestingly with both the Mexican surrealist movement around WWII as well as the explosion of magical realism that was happening at the time Cordry was collecting them. I would love to see an exhibition that explored those relationships. Please apply to the Getty and add it to their big survey of Latin American art – L.A., L.A.
As Bryan mentioned in the above piece, the bearded masks also fascinate me. The ones in Chicago collections are not only of extraordinary artistic value but they are made from exceptionally large and high quality pieces of wood. These carvers had access to materials that were beyond those of most village carvers. I knew these masks before I ever got to Rome. When I saw the baroque fountains and statues – Neptune, Moses, etc – with the wonderfully extravagant beards, I immediately associated them with the Mexican carvers. Think Trevi Fountian:

[Charles then attached another image that I was unable to import into the blog. The point  is that the bearded masks in Cordry look very much like the face on the central marble statue at Trevi.]

The Mexican carvers would have had easy access to images of Bernini’s and Michelangelo’s work as well as all the fountains. But it would not surprise me if some of them had actually been to Rome. A few years back, I did an art project with a Maori tribe in New Zealand. The people in the fishing village had not travel a lot, but the one place that many of them had been was Salt Lake City, Utah. The entire tribe had converted to Mormonism early in the 20th century. The Mother Church was on top of their bucket list. I can image that the same would be true for the santeros and Rome.
Similarly, it is interesting to unpack the category of “authentic” dance masks. There are the master carvers that Bryan has documented so well. Among those, it would be interesting to look at those who were carving entire sets for the elaborate narrative dance sequences versus those that were carving commissions for individual families participating in the festivals. Then there are the carvers who must succeed in capturing shamanistic forces during the carving process as with the Pascola masks – that must be quite a different process.
Equally interesting are the more spontaneous mask traditions where the individual dancer has his or her creative moment to interpret or invent the figure for that year’s festival. Many are amateurish. (Indeed, they may be just additions to a plastic U.S. Halloween mask). But when the person hits it, they are wonderful. And some of my most exciting masks are these types. Sometimes the creator is also proud and has written his name on the inside.
Bryan has done lots. I hope others will also pick up on this interest.

Charles Thurow August 20, 2014

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