Cultured Magazine

Winter 2016

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216 culturedmag.com RACHEL MASON: UNMASKED W In her subversive musical performances, the Los Angeles-based artist takes on Presidents, shady heads of state, and convicted murderers—and her growing fan base can't get enough. Michael Slenske takes a closer look at the politics of it all. PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEFF VESPA atch your head," says Rachel Mason. "I've hit mine so many times down here." We're descending slowly into her new studio—situated behind the dusky boiler room of her West Hollywood apartment building—but despite Mason's fair warning, I narrowly avoid braining myself on a foam-wrapped water pipe and the jamb of the three-foot-high, Wonka-esque door leading into this subterranean workspace. Once safely inside, however, my gaze is immediately drawn to a vibrant green screen engulfing nearly half of the basement. Scattered about the verdant backdrop, which is used for her film work and curls across the floor and up the ceiling in an emerald wave, are two microphone stands that punctuate an outcropping of painted papier-mâché masks fitted with proboscises and headdresses of varying sizes (from a rainbow of craft feathers to a whitewashed tree branch). The shelves sparkle with glittery costumes and reflections of the broken mirror dresses on a few of her Starseeds dolls—an Arte Povera chorus of her female art (Joan Jonas, Yayoi Kusama) and celebrity (Joni Mitchell, Madonna) icons—made with CelluClay heads attached to porcelain doll bodies: "They are women I loved who were intimidating to me." In this context, it's easy to understand how, Mason says, "These basement storage units tend to be fruitful for me." After all, she started building this chorus, which has gone on to star in shows at New York's envoy enterprises and ltd los angeles, inside "a dark dungeon space" in Sunnyside, Queens. While these grotesque figures might read as kitschy Pop Art mashups of Greer Lankton's creatures and Wayland Flowers' Madame puppet, they function more as panoramic windows looking out onto every touchstone of Mason's multimedia practice, from her days free climbing the eight-story Dickson Art Center at UCLA as an undergrad to her decade-long pursuit of transcendant performance that mixes sculpture and songwriting, film and costume, installation and provocation in the form of witty and soulful social commentary. "It could be that my best work just gnaws at me in a really uncomfortable way," admits Mason. "I can't figure it out, and I'm disturbed by it." This discomfort reached its first apogee with the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, when Mason was working on her MFA in sculpture at Yale. "Every person in the Bush administration went to Yale, and here I am, this L.A. kid at the epicenter of power in our country," recalls Mason, who grew up in the Hollywood Hills just above the Sunset Strip. She attended the same secondary school as Leonardo DiCaprio, and dove deep into punk and queer culture during high school (she took a girl to prom), while falling in love with David Bowie, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey along the way. "I was really obsessed with musicians who felt like they were artists," she says. "People with huge personas were exciting to me." Her mother was a journeyman crime reporter, and her father worked as a part-time special effects man (on Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey) and served as Jim Morrison's cameraman at UCLA film school. The Masons later took jobs distributing Hustler for Larry Flynt, which led to them buying out one of their clients in what is now the landmark Circus of Books gay erotica store. Mason's friend, artist John Knuth, later ran the acclaimed Circus Gallery, showcasing such talents as Dawn Kasper and Julian Hoeber from their storage space. (She is currently co-directing a documentary about her parents' unlikely roles as icons of the LGBT community.) Mason's career is built on a bit of serendipity, as well. "I really didn't decide or choose to do music and it didn't seem like I could get my head around that. I was more inclined toward just making objects," she says, noting the image for her seminal Kissing President Bush sculpture—of herself locking lips with the 43rd POTUS—grew out of a vision she had before going to bed one night in 2003. Just as that piece received critical success in The New York Times, Mason was already on to her next target: heads of state involved in war. "Being alive during the time of these wars, we're all feeding into it," she says. "I'm pretending to be an ambassador as a little penance." As such, Mason sculpted every leader of a wartime nation—and sung in character as leaders like Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, robbing

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