The Genesis of Mason Gehring’s Deconstructed Self-Portraits
by EVA AVENUE | September 5, 2018
While house-sitting and half in and out of sleep, artist Mason Gehring saw a big scary floating head in the doorway. That unusual, unsettling experience inspired her to begin painting portraits of her face bathed in an overexposure of light. She took selfies at her bedroom desk when the light came streaming through the window, and the patches of white created such interesting shapes out of her face that they turned into her next painting project.
“It was like a big round ball shape rather than a head,” she said. “It had eyeballs, no eyelids, a nose, no mouth and ears and no hair; really fleshy, like really old medicine balls that are huge and leather, but flesh, and it never even had a mouth.”
Although she’d experienced somnambulant hallucinations in the past, she was terrified and it felt very real.
“I was trying to act rationally like what can I do to defend myself?” she said. “Something told me don’t be scared — ghosts are real but you don’t have to be scared. But I was like this is the wrong messenger to send if you’re trying to tell me to not be scared.”
A noise came from outside, maybe a bird, which caught the attention of the floating head before it swooshed out toward the bathroom. She ran after it but it was gone. She stood there fully awake, her heart racing, body covered in sweat.
“That’s what sort of started my portrait obsession recently” she said. “I started and did 10 mini portraits the day after because that experience was so messed up. I couldn’t shake it. It changed me. I was like ‘I don’t know how to cope or deal with anything other than paint’ so I started doing portraits.”
Her larger portraits have just come down from the walls of the Dunedin Fine Art Center’s group show “I + Thou”, which included Shannon Leah Halverson, mixed media painting; Jane Jaskevich, sculpture; Kenny Jensen, mixed media installation; Baxter Koziol, mixed media installation; Stephen Schatz, ceramic sculpture.
She felt that the mystery creature wasn’t a part of her internal reality and was definitely outside of herself, from another world.
“It was a messenger which is so funny because it didn’t have a mouth, so how could it be an effective messenger if it didn’t have a mouth,” Gehring wondered. “It was so real. I’ve been diagnosed with adult sleepwalking so I’ve had lots of really intense hallucinating sleepwalking things where I‘m active and fighting and doing stuff but this was definitely something else. I talked to my sister about it because she’s a priest and had a serious conversation about what if I’m a medium. What if I’m talking to God. I don’t know what’s happening. I even talked to my therapist — like, this is too much. That really shook me to make me question lots of things.”
The artist has known DFAC curator Catherine Bergmann since she was a kid, having grown up in Dunedin and volunteering at the art center for several years. Gehring’s parents had been actively involved with the art center, so when they moved away, Bergmann asked her if she wanted to be part of the annual Studio Waltz, which then turned into an invitation to exhibit in a show.
“I really loved the way Catherine presented them and it was a breath of fresh air for me to look at them in that space and organized the way she did it,” Gehring said. “It made me really appreciate how different each one is but also they all worked together. Specifically the white. It is a mask, a way of protecting yourself; it’s the self-defense; this is the face I put onto the world to whatever circumstances or I’m doing this because it’s going to keep me safe and being vulnerable is not safe.”
Although her read on her own work is about self-protection, I got something different out of the paintings when I came upon the show long before writing about it. They were wild and free and devastatingly interesting and I didn’t want to leave the room during the art center-wide tour I was on with Catherine. I could’ve stayed with them for hours.
Gehring isn’t sure if she’ll display these portraits somewhere else, but for now she does know she’ll be a part of Studio Waltz again on December 1st with what she hopes to be a new series of work.
“The theme itself — the deconstructed portrait series, I will always do it whether I put it in more shows or I don’t,” she said.
She graduated from The School of Visual Arts in New York City in 2006 and is currently enrolled in the University of Florida’s master’s Art in Medicine program. She hosts paint parties, does marketing and advertising for clients, and paints for herself.
For more information, visit masongehring.com.