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The Mask Gala

Creating a mask is the fastest way to transform yourself. That's what a retinue of artists did for an extraordinary dinner party hosted by F&W and the Public Art Fund, at Manhattan's new 5 Ninth restaurant.

The dinner party began with a lively discussion about war and peace. The focus, however, was on neither the Middle East nor Tolstoy. Guests were simply talking about their masks. "This is an allegory of war," said installation artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz, holding up an elaborate cardboard-and-gold-paint creation in which Mars seemed to be devouring a dove. "I'm an artist. I have to make a political statement." He held up another mask, this one painted sky-blue and studded with ornate gold buttons and the proverbial lion lying down with the lamb. "Who wants to be peace?" he asked.

The occasion was the Mask Gala hosted by F&W Editor in Chief Dana Cowin and Susan Freedman, president of the Public Art Fund, a nonprofit organization in New York City that helps both prominent and emerging artists exhibit their work in public spaces. The group's philosophy is that art shouldn't be confined to museums and galleries—and a mask party, Cowin thought, seemed like a fun way to celebrate the cause.

The tone of the event, from mysterious theme to color scheme, was set by the invitation. F&W's Lauren Fister commissioned fuchsia Thai-silk boxes lined in chocolate-brown silk to hold extraordinary fuchsia-and-orange-glazed white chocolate masks created by chocolate artist Jacques Torres. Attached to the box lid was a paper invitation Fister designed that slipped into a shimmery sleeve with cutouts that resembled the eyes of a mask. The dress code? "Mask chic."

In the early evening, the first of the dozen guests climbed up to the top floor of 5 Ninth, a new restaurant in a 19th-century brownstone in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat lived in the building in the 1980s, says Vincent Seufert, who co-owns the restaurant with Joel Michel and Rick Camac. The chef, Zak Pelaccio, made his name cooking at Chickenbone Café in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood where many artists live and work, so several guests were already familiar with his food.

Nico De Swert, an event and floral designer in New York City, had transformed the spare space, with its high Douglas-fir-beamed ceilings and exposed-brick walls. The dining table was covered with a floor-grazing, chocolate-brown linen tablecloth and a pink brocade runner. Hot-pink pillows sat on IKEA chairs, which were slipcovered with the same fabric as the tablecloth. Cylindrical glass vases wrapped in lacy paper held candles set in water, which reflected the light. Instead of creating tall floral centerpieces, which can block guests' view, De Swert suspended from the ceiling an undulating sheet of woven gold wire with dangling test tubes holding tree peonies, sweet peas and cosmos. The effect was ethereal, as if the flowers had floated up from the table.

Cowin—in black, sequined Chanel tuxedo pants, a T-shirt and a mask of flared pheasant feathers—greeted each guest, and a rousing game of show-and-tell ensued. Conceptual artist Anissa Mack arrived wearing a spiky green headdress decorated with sparkly balls. "What's the theme—Liberty?" asked Tom Eccles, director of the Public Art Fund. "A little Statue of Liberty, a little Christmas, a little Cinco de Mayo," Mack replied. "I'm into the holidays." She said her piñata-like mask was made of papier-mâché, glitter and sequins: "I'm working on papier-mâché busts right now, so I used the same techniques." Mack's boyfriend, performance artist Dave McKenzie, wore cardboard binoculars with pinwheels where the lenses should have been. He said he has used masks in his work, including a performance piece in which he wears a Bill Clinton mask and walks up and down 125th Street in Harlem, where Clinton has an office.

Waiters passed around hors d'oeuvres—sautéed shrimp marinated in Armagnac; spoonfuls of green papaya and mango salad tossed with fish sauce, lime juice and chiles—and the crowd grew even livelier. Brazilian-born artist Valeska Soares shook her mask, an oval needlepoint frame covered with cloth and wiggly plastic eyes, and shouted, "It's a paranoia mask! You can never tell where I'm looking!" Freedman and Eccles of the Public Art Fund peered through masks by Mondini-Ruiz representing the sun and moon—"the original public art," Mondini-Ruiz said.

By the time everyone sat down for dinner, the masks had long been shed. Guests sipped a tangy fish soup with red snapper, enoki mushrooms and transparent cellophane noodles, paired with a Domaine Chandon Étoile Brut Sur Lees 1998, a crisp sparkling wine. Roasted honey-glazed pork shoulder with braised leeks and Sichuan pickled cucumbers was matched with a fruity 2001 Domaine Chandon Carneros Pinot Noir.

As waiters passed out shot glasses of almond-tea milk shakes, the artists revealed much more than their faces. The conversation swerved from the intricate architecture of a high-heeled shoe to steamy affairs between artists and curators. Mondini-Ruiz and Mack confessed to eating every last bit of rich, crispy pork skin—and to carrying glue guns in their bags for emergency mask repairs. Writer Jonathan Hawke, the guest of the artist and clothing designer Han Feng, praised the party's concept. "In New York City, everyone wears a mask anyway," he said. "It was a relief to acknowledge it for once!"

After devouring devil's food cake with chocolate ganache and macerated cherries, the guests peeked inside the pyramid-shaped boxes that had been placed at each table setting, with macaroons inside to take home. Soares chose an additional souvenir: She plucked a lush, crimson peony from the hanging floral arrangement and tucked it into the deep V of her red blouse. Others followed suit, some climbing onto chairs to do so.

The crowd gathered for a portrait, masks on and flowers blooming from pockets and behind ears. "Now with masks off!" cried Han Feng, and everyone complied. "Now naked!" someone shouted from the back row. That's when the group, not quite ready for such exposure, called it a night.

Jennifer Tung is a contributor to In Style and often writes for the New York Times.

Published September 2004
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