Meatyard’s gruesome images provoke varied interpretation

Masks scare people. Their stony visages — frozen fixtures in place of living, breathing, twitching human faces — are intimidating and unnerving.

But they are also iconic. From Ancient Greek choruses to today’s international hacking collective Anonymous, masks have been used to reveal as much as they intend to hide.

Photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard revels in this paradox in a show of more than 50 images, “Dolls and Masks,” on view at the de Young Museum through February.

In one image, a massive, heavy blob of an aged face stares, with the fledgling trunk of a young boy beneath it. Crusted eyebrows and deep wrinkles make a pensive expression. The mask’s ragged throat dwarfs the child’s narrow shoulders, eliminating the neck.

The “Untitled” photo is one of many by Meatyard featuring children (often his own), whom he posed in bizarre dime store masks against unruly, dilapidated settings in rural Kentucky.

The masks, fantastical and disfigured, warp sensibilities of space, proportion and character. Flapping rubber faces contrast sharply with bodies; their outrageous gruesomeness unlocks a Pandora’s Box of interpretations.

Purity, as represented by youth and innocence, appears corrupted. Human nature is inherently sinister.

But weird can be wonderful, as with Meatyard’s “Occasion for Diriment,” in which he uses the grotesque for a gleeful, comic effect. By using his family as models, another layer — that of an uncanny family album — is added.

Dolls, mannequins and limbs are scattered throughout the series, as primary subject matter or shadowy accoutrements. Most are worn, battered and beaten, their unyielding expressions serving a similar, but less aggressive, presence than the masks.

The props’ chilling detachment comes from the same place: a manmade attempt to create a crude semblance of the face, the most potent and emotional part of the human body. Masks block basic emotive communication. Many horror filmmakers have capitalized on this disconcerting effect by using dolls and masks.

Meatyard, an odd man with an odd name, ironically was born in Normal, lll., in 1925, and settled in Kentucky. He worked as an optician.

When he died, his artwork wasn’t well known. Today he is a touchstone for artists including Joel-Peter Witkin and Roger Ballen, whose work also touches on disfigurement, abandonment and the grotesque. Sally Mann, a contemporary Southern photographer, also is known for her controversial take on the family album.

Some of Meatyard’s work, however, seems like that of an experimental art student, easily described as “unresolved.” Certain pictures are effortlessly comic or eerie, and others, often his still life arrangements, fall flat.

But the fickle inconsistency is endearing. What is boring one minute, is curious, engaging or even trepidatious, the next.


Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks

Where: deYoung Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Feb. 26
Price: $6 to $10
Contact: (415) 750-3600,

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