Friday, 6 May 2011

I Wish I'd Done This: Chris Ware's 'Unmasked' (2009)

'Unmasked' is the title of Chris Ware's cover for the November 2nd 2009 edition of 'The New Yorker'. The image shows Ware's talent for setting a scene, giving it an atmosphere and creating a narrative. The scene is set in the suburbs of America, in what looks to be a typical middle class neighbourhood. The night is Halloween and a group of parents are taking their children door to door throughout the neighbourhood 'trick or treating'. As the children go to the door the parents keep a distance, enough of a distance to give the children the notion of independence, but close enough to keep an eye on what's going on. After all the children are essentially approaching strangers door to door and the parents want to be able to step in should they feel the need. Well, in theory the parents are keeping an eye on the children, but in reality they are busy checking their iPhones. Ware makes a big point of this; he uses white as a spot colour to highlight the glow of the iPhones on the faces of the parents, which bares an eerie resemblance to the 'spooky' masks that the children are wearing. This resemblance between the mask and the iPhone glow is clearly the basis for the illustration; Ware is clearly implying a similarity between the two. 

This leads us to the question: What point is Ware trying to make? A quick scan of Internet forums, shows us that many are asking the same question and no one seems to have the definitive answer. One interpretation is that it is a comment on over protective parents who do their children more harm than good by denying them independence. 

On the other hand, some argue that Ware is making a very different point: a point about parents not paying enough attention to their children and instead being too distracted by their iPhones. Looking at the image I notice that the adults may be all standing together, but really might as well be alone. After all they don't seem to be at all engaging with each other at all. Although this would seem to be a prime opportunity to socialize with other parents of young children, to get to know the neighbours and to become part of the community. Instead the parents are shunning all of this potential face-to-face socializing with others in favour of socializing electronically with those outside of the scene.

In my opinion, although this piece could be interpreted as a comment on neglectful parenting, I feel that this is too narrow an interpretation. I think that Ware's intentions are much broader. I think the piece is intended to point out the irony of how technology like the iPhone that is intended to bring us closer together is making us more and more isolated. The parents busy with their iPhones

So, onto the next question: why do I wish I'd done this? Why this image? Part of the reason why I love this piece is because it manages a perfect balance of moods: To an extent it is a humorous satire of the middle classes, following in a long tradition of New Yorker Cartoons that ever since the 20's have been poking fun at the absurdities of modern American life. Then on the other hand the piece is a somewhat sad and melancholic view of a world where we keep ourselves isolated from those closest to us. 

And my appreciation for the piece doesn't end there; I'm also completely in awe of the way that Ware has created the image. He has managed to get across what is potentially quite a difficult and complicated scene through an intelligent and sophisticated use of simple and dynamic shapes. With these simple but beautifully designed shapes and a colour palette that is also subtle but incredibly effective he has created a scene and an atmosphere that are instantly recognisable to the viewer. 

As far as I'm concerned any piece of work that manages to be so funny and sad at he same time; a piece that laughs at it's audience whilst simultaneously sympathizing with them; in a way that is both subtle and striking, is certainly a piece worthy of attention and acclaim. That is why I love it, that is why I chose to write about it and that is why I wish I'd done it.

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