Marco Livingstone

Since the mid 1970's Denis Masi has devoted his art to an investigation of the many ways in which power, particularly institutionalised authority, manifests itself as a dehumanising, negative force that controls our lives and circumscribes our imagined freedoms. It is this preoccupation, rather than any purely aesthetic aim, that gives coherence to an artistic production that has encompassed a wide range from large-scale sculptural installations to charcoal drawings, etchings, metal reliefs and framed computer-generated photographs. Masi's own perspective on his development divides his art into four phases, beginning with a psychological investigation of the exercise of power on a subliminal level, moving on to a commemorative art involved with rites and rituals, then on to the manifestation of dominance in territorial terms and most recently to an analysis of the ways in which our thoughts are influenced by the processing and presentation of information by the media. Although each phase corresponds roughly to his involvement with a particular medium - the first two concepts materialised primarily as installations, the third as metal reliefs and the fourth as printed images created with the aid of computers - it is instructive that the artists himself thinks of these shifts in terms of their content rather than of their form.

The subversive political dimension that underlies all of Masi's work has been consistently packaged under a veneer of seductive elegance and professional finish that might seem, at first, to contradict its critical intention. So accustomed have we become to the voicing of dissent against the abuse of power in terms of howls of emotional outrage, as in Goya, or through brutal expressionist distortions and satire bordering on the grotesque, as in German art of the Weimer period, that we have come to expect protest to be direct and hard-hitting to the point of exaggeration. This has continued to be the case in Britain, where the American-born Masi has made his work since the late 1960s. In most cases the artist's position, inevitably on high moral ground, can be clearly discerned, whether voiced in the ironic deconstruction of the conventions of war memorials, as in the case of the sculptor Michael Sandle, or in the tradition of Dadaist photo collage, as in the work of Peter Kennard. The work of such artists has an undeniable power, fired by the passion of its convictions, but the spectator is left essentially with only two options: to sympathise with the artist's stance, or to be outraged by it.

Masi's art is unsettling in more subtle ways. Rather than making his position immediately apparent by railing against injustice, or by a self-evident mocking of authority, Masi undermines the mechanisms of control from within by mimicking their structures and outward form. The oppressiveness of power wielded from a faceless, monolithic institutional base is not simply alluded to as subject matter, but taken as a given to which all the formal decisions and all the imagery alike must relate. The atmosphere of paranoia suffusing both Masi's sculptural installations of the 1970s and 1980s and his more recent wall works is all the more insidious for the familiarity and alluring tastefulness of the exquisitely fabricated objects through which it takes form. By having his works constructed by specialists from his precisely drawn specifications, thus removing all trace of his hand and of authorial presence, Masi re-enacts the chilling anonymity and depersonalisation that have come to operate at many levels in late 20th century western societies. From the intelligence-gathering operations of the secret services to the chic elegance of high-tech architecture and fashionable design, at once attractive in their embrace of the future and sinister in their presumptions of a bleakly functional machine-like efficiency, such strategies have helped to keep the individual in his or her place.

From the late 1970s Masi's sculptural objects in metal or wood were sheathed primarily in a matt black surface: a look, as it happens, that became prevalent in the consumerist decade to come as the ultimate symbolic expression of a knowing and restrained good taste that spoke simultaneously of success, a quietly ostentatious display of wealth and a callous disregard for the fate of others. Whether incorporating surgical instruments and embalmed laboratory animals, or simply such machined materials as metal and mirrored glass, these expertly engineered artefacts presented by Masi, have about them the coldness and calculated efficiency of the corporate headquarters of a multinational organisation, or of a research institute, operating theatre or torture chamber. As in the Lou Reed song 'Sunday Morning' recorded in 1967 for the first Velvet Underground album, the shimmering beauty of the surface only temporarily masks the fear and apprehension lying below, supplying its dark message of paranoia with an added frisson: 'Watch out! The world's behind you.'

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