From the Archives

Judith Henry: Me As Her

From Curator Mary Birmingham:

I recently checked in with Judith Henry, whose 2016 exhibition, Me As Her, featured staged photographs of the artist posing behind masks representing famous deceased women. At the time, we were interested in examining the mask as a transformative tool that both shielded and created identities. As we move into a new reality where masks represent safety and protection and remind us of the threat of disease and death, it is all the more interesting to take a second look at Henry’s work. I’ve been enjoying her new book, Beauty Masks: Portraits, in which the artist is photographed holding masks made from the pages of fashion magazines. Crucial to the intent of the portraits is the manner in which her own aging hands and body interface with the masks. The images are strange, glamorous, and arresting, and the contrast of retouched glamour photos with Henry’s own images is the underlying narrative of the book and the individual photos.

Judith Henry’s black-and-white portraits of famous deceased women may resemble snapshots, but in reality they are staged photographs of the artist masquerading as each of the women. For the series Me as Her, Henry made life-size masks of the women from Internet sourced photographs and posed behind them at public locations near her home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. By hiding within each work Henry becomes the subject—not as herself, but as a woman she admires.

The appearance of the artist’s hands holding the masks provides a clue to her identity as an older woman and is an important signature aspect of each piece. These portraits of shared identity invite us to consider how the aging process relates to beauty, femininity, mortality, and fame. By representing women of varied ages, races, and vocations, the photographs also explore different facades of female identity.

Masks have been utilized across cultures and time periods for protection, disguise, and performance, and these characteristics are all present in this work. In the artist’s hands the mask is a powerful tool for transformation, shielding her identity while enabling her to assume a new one. Henry’s innovative use of masks explores the tension that exists between the public persona and the interior self and prompts us to question the masks we wear.

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