Art and social encounters share a symbiotic relationship. The arts draw people to social spaces - such as galleries - where colleagues, friends, and strangers mingle. In social environments, we share information and accidentally inspire more art. Socializing for an artist like myself is a part of the creative process, and in many ways, the practice of a figurative painter is a social one. Since the beginning of the pandemic our shared social encounters were either on our computer screens, or six feet away, and masked. As a result of social distancing, figurative artists such as myself no longer had the luxury of working from life with a model. Over the course of the pandemic, my creative process needed to adapt to social isolation, which created the need to imagine a new visual language for socially distanced portraiture. The disposable blue face mask was once associated with a medical environment, over this past year it became an essential part of our everyday lives and turned into a symbol of this moment in time. In the painting Mask, a long-haired figure is depicted donning a mask to safely interact with the outside world for necessities. The clean desaturated colours increase the vibrancy of the pale blues of the disposable gloves and mask. Even with social distancing affecting the process of portraiture, the final product retains the social nature of the genre. Historically the portrait focused not only on creating an accurate appearance but the inner likeness of the individual, enabling the viewer to connect emotionally with the person depicted. A representational painting is the documentation of an event, where the artist is a witness to a moment in time. Through mark-making and the signature, the artist makes themselves a character in the image. The final result makes the painting a conversation between the artist, the subject and the viewer.
While James McDowell’s work Mask is not directly connected to the historical aspects of mental health care, his work is essential in this exhibition. It is necessary to acknowledge that The Aesthetics of Mental Health was presented in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mask captures the emotional strain that the pandemic brought; the strain that is clearly visible in the body of the painted subject is further emphasized through McDowell’s subdued colour palette. The masked figure is immediately relatable to those who have experienced the pandemic, and resonates with the anxiety and stress elicited by caution of day-to-day actions as they relate to the individual, their local community, and the global community.
Upon viewing this work one cannot help but reflect on the increase in medical imagery and terms that have become an essential part of our daily life. Once specialized language, terms such as “social distance,” “variants of concern,” and “herd immunity” have become commonplace. As well, the namesake of this piece - the mask - has transitioned from a solely medical item to a mainstay in our homes. Language has a strong influence to shape our views: in 1920, the Mimico Asylum became known as the Ontario Hospital, Mimico. The replacement of “Hospital” for “Asylum” was part of a province-wide shift to move away from the growing stigma associated with the mental health institutions of the era. Similarly, “insanity” was increasingly replaced with “mental illness,” first in medicine and later amongst other disciplines (e.g., the legal system) and the general public. The connections drawn by McDowell between the private and the medical highlight a longer tradition of the role even institutionalized medicine has played in our personal lives: through language and imagery. As we move past the pandemic, contemporary dialogue around medicine - and particularly mental health care - has the opportunity to grow from its history, towards language and practices that humanize those seeking services and sharing their lived experiences.