One of the projects I have been given ‘Behind the Scenes’ access to for 2013 is ‘The Mask Series’ – An international, colloborative art project which is being curated by the American conceptual artist Shane Balkowitsch.  My main interest in this project other than the obvious – that it currently involves 100 conceptual artists producing work featuring a vintage M10 Czech gas mask – is that talking to those involved is giving me lots of insight into the way others approach creative work.

Unsurprisingly, the group has a Facebook page and over the weekend, this page became the last resting place of a rather amazing piece of art by the hugely renowned photograher Quinn Jacobson.  It’s a 16″ x 20″ (30 x 40 cm) Black Glass Ambrotype of the musician and actor Rex Rideout, using the M10 gas mask to explore ideas of anachronism.   Two things which are probably worth knowing here.  20 inches is really rather large for an ambrotype.  This is work at the sort of size that I suspect most participants of the project lie awake dreaming about being able to play with, even before you factor in that black glass doesn’t exaclty grow on trees.  Secondly, Rex Rideout.  Seriously.  Like, from the movies!  Again, it won’t be every member of the group who can ring up their Hollywood mates and ask them to come down to the study to play at being an anachronism.  But, I digress.

Here’s the result.

Needless to say, the group loved it.  Not purely for its technical brilliance and disconcerting clarity (personally, I suspect this image looks more like Rex Rideout than Rex Rideout does…) but they also really admired the idea.

The trouble was, Quinn didn’t feel the same.  Here’s what he had to say: 

It’s interesting how you have an idea in your head, you can actually see it, but it doesn’t translate photographically. That’s what happened in this case. I asked Rex Rideout to come to the studio and allow me to photograph him with this mask. Rex was in the movie, “Cowboys & Aliens”. I wanted to play on that theme; anachronism – things out of place and out of time. I also wanted to represent the idea of war. Rex cradling the mask like a decapitated head.

I like the image, but it didn’t succeed in doing what I wanted to it to do. I don’t normally parade my failures around, but in this case, I don’t mind.  One thing I did learn, I would like to keep playing with the concept of anachronism. It’s built into this process, but you can exacerbate it quite easily. There’s always something to learn, especially from a failures.

What I find particularly fascinating here is that, yet again, another creative practitioner coming up against what Ira Glass calls ‘The Creative Gap‘.  The difference between the idea in your head, and the way you manage to translate it onto the page.  

Of course, a lot of us, faced with such an exquisite failure as what Quinn came up with, might quietly be tempted to be rather pleased with ourselves.  But not Quinn.  He looked at, and thought, nope.  So he destroyed it. You have to admire that.  It’s his work, and it was ever only going out into the world on his terms, (or rather the genuine piece of art at any rate.  What we are seeing here is just a digital echo, which I probably should say Quinn has kindly agreed to let me show you.  

The reality is that it probably takes any creative practioner quite a while to get to the point where they have the vision and confidence to be this selective.  Ironically, it often seems to come at the point when the rest of the world has no such qualms about the quality of the output.  But in the end, there is only one critic who really matters, and that’s the voice inside the artist’s head.

When I spoke to Shane Balkowitsch, the curator of the Mask Series this afternoon, he was full of deep admiration, but also perhaps a note of regret to see good work escaping the net.

There are some of us in the group who are never going to take a plate this good.  But it’s not good enough for him, and we have to respect that.  I could just sit here and take the view, how can I ever compete with Quinn?  I might as well give up.  But that’s really not the point of what we’re doing here.  This is NOT a competition, it’s a collaborative venture.  So I don’t have make a better plate than Quinn, I just have to make my plate. The strength of this collection is the diversity of not only the artists backgrounds but also the talent that each collaborator brings to the collection

No matter how many people thought it was great, the reality is that Quinn’s ambrotype of Rex Rideout is no more.  What we’re looking at here is, as Shane put it, a bunch of zeroes and ones.  Or, as Quinn himself says: 

It’s kind of like having a photo of a dead person.  The photo isn’t the person.  That kind of thing.

Now that, the cool-headed ability to be philosophical about one’s own output is what I call creative genius. And, it’s a Masterclass in the sort of ruthlessness with which we should all be approaching our work. 

Even so, Quinn’s, editorial gesture, if I can call it that, has nevertheless caused a bit of stir among the group.  I doubt if the last word has yet been said on the list, but at least here on this post,it really ought go to Quinn:

It was a fun exercise. Maybe another idea will work.