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“It was a pleasure from beginning to end, which is a rare thing when you’re making sculpture. There’s usually a lot of heartbreak and pain and things going wrong and gravity and all these things, but this was just magic from day one,” said British artist Thomas Houseago to a crowd of onlookers last month. He was talking about his new work Masks (Pentagon), which was unveiled in the center of Rockefeller Plaza shortly after the artist appeared on the Today show.
The work, which was funded by the Public Art Fund and Tishman Speyer, is a massive room formed by five abstracted, sculptural masks, which range in height from about 14.5 to 16.5 feet. From the outside, the work is a massive, modernist marvel with roots in cubism, and masks that look more like bone-white plaster skulls than faces. From the inside, holes in the eyes and faces of the masks create windows that reveal the New York City landscape beyond, while the structure and texture of the work reveal themselves in idiosyncratic and touching ways. “If you explore the piece,” Houseago said, “[My children’s] handprints and their work and their influence are in the work very literally. Bee’s footprints run around one of the masks, and you can see me chasing her [on the work’s surface].
Appealing to the universality of human face, Houseago wanted to create a work that would attract the diverse public of New York City by breaking down the dynamic of object and spectator through an interactive work. “I didn’t want to make an object that people walked around and looked at. I wanted to do something different,” Houseago said of the project. “I think that is the influence of this country and my children and this phase in my life where I want to let people in, so that they can see how I made it, they can feel that process,” said Houseago. “We kind of lived with [the masks] for over a year, so they became this bizarre landscape. We fell in them, my kids climbed on them, people put their fingers in, friends would sit on them; they took on this weird social role, so for me it’s really important that that’s transmitted to people when they walk in.”
Masks (Pentagon) is on view at Rockefeller Plaza through June 12.