Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, gathering together photographs, videos, sculptures, and other ephemera, displayed across the galleries in the museum’s tower (adjacent to the more famous rotunda). The exhibit was organized Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman, with assistance from X Zhu-Nowell and Ksenia Soboleva.

The following works are on view, organized by room:

Tower 2

  • 1 set of 63 chromogenic prints, 1992-1993, each roughly 18×12 inches
  • 1 color video with sound, 1994, 25 minutes
  • 1 color video projection with sound, 1996, 60 minutes
  • 1 color video projection with sound, 2010, 7 minutes 55 seconds
  • 1 painted bronze with aluminum plaque, 2010, sized roughly 16x5x7 inches
  • 1 painted bronze on marble base with aluminum plaque, 2011, sized roughly 20x4x4 inches
  • 1 color video for flatscreen monitor, silent, 2012, 15 minutes
  • 1 painted bronze on marble base with aluminum plaque, 2012, sized roughly 26x6x5 inches
  • 1 color video with sound, 2013-, 162 minutes 40 seconds
  • 1 two-channel color video with sound, 2014, 45 minutes 45 seconds
  • 1 polyurethane resin and acrylic paint on granite base with styrene and waterslide decals, 2018, sized roughly 19x6x6 inches

Tower 4

  • 1 black and white video projection with sound, 1996, 4 minutes 30 seconds
  • 1 color video with sound, 1997, 4 minutes 30 seconds
  • 7 sets of two chromogenic prints, 1998, roughly 20×20 inches each panel
  • 5 framed chromogenic prints, 2003, 2004, sized roughly 75×51, 72×48, 56×46, 49×33, 46×36 inches
  • 4 framed gelatin silver bromide prints, 2003, 2006, sized roughly 65×51, 60×49, 59×51 inches
  • 1 two-channel color video installation with sound, 2006; one channel projected, 35 minutes 32 seconds, one channel on monitor, 2 minutes 52 seconds

Thannhauser 4

  • 1 framed chromogenic print, 2000, sized roughly 68×68
  • 1 color video with sound, 2002, 2 minutes
  • 1 seven-channel color and black-and-white video installation for framed flatscreen monitors with sound, 2005, 6 minutes 55 seconds
  • 1 bronze on marble base with metal plaque, 2008, sized roughly 18x13x13 inches
  • 1 lightbox, 2014, sized roughly 42×33 inches
  • 1 bronze on granite base, 2015, sized roughly 16x20x7 inches
  • 1 painted bronze on granite base, 2017, sized roughly 18x10x8 inches
  • 1 painted bronze, 2021, sized roughly 19x5x4 inches

Tower 5

  • 1 black-and-white and color video with sound, 1995, 7 minutes
  • 18 silicone masks with wigs, 2000-2019, dimensions variable
  • 13 framed gelatin silver bromide prints, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2017, 2018, 2019, sized roughly 64×50, 63×52, 63×49, 62×52, 62×51, 62×42, 60×45, 60×42, 21×18, 21×16 inches
  • 1 pair of two framed gelatin silver bromide prints, 2018, 44×64 inches overall
  • 2 framed chromogenic prints, 2018, 2019, sized roughly 60×45

Tower 7

  • 1 oil on board, 1985, sized roughly 10×7 inches
  • 1 set of 148 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroids), 1988-2005, each roughly 4x4inches
  • 1 gelatin silver bromide print mounted on aluminum, 1991, sized roughly 20×17 inches
  • 4 framed chromogenic prints, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2020, sized roughly 51×63, 52×36, 49×39, 24×19 inches
  • 1 chromogenic print, 2012, sized roughly 77×15 inches
  • 1 acrylic paint on Masonite in custom frame; ink on paper; and photographs under glass, 2012, sized roughly 46×45 inches open
  • 1 resin, marble dust, oil paint, and indelible ink, in two parts, 2014, roughly sized 2x8x5 inches each
  • 1 set of two chromogenic prints framed, 2015, sized roughly 52×76 inches overall
  • 1 printed wallpaper, 2015, dimensions variable
  • 1 platinum silicone, human hair, and wood, in vitrine, 2017, sized roughly 63x24x24 inches
  • 1 color video with sound (in collaboration with Wieden + Kennedy), 2018, 5 minutes
  • 7 watercolor on paper, 2020, sized roughly 12×9, 12×8 inches
  • 4 oil on board, 2020, sized roughly 12×16, 16×12, 12×12 inches
  • 1 wax, fabric mask, and steel rod on wood base, 2020, sized roughly, 22x6x4 inches
  • 1 bronze chain, 3D-printed objects, and mixed media, 2021, 13 ft (approximate length)

(Installation shots below.)

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the museum (here). Hardcover, 7.75 × 10.25 inches, 192 pages with 130 color illustrations. Includes essays and texts by Jennifer Blessing, Nat Trotman, and the artist. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: When Gillian Wearing started taking casual Polaroids of herself in the late 1980s, her decision to turn the camera back inward and begin exploring the nature of identity, role playing, and performance might have seemed like a momentary art school idea. And while she was undoubtedly aware of Cindy Sherman’s work, and of others who were digging into the ways that mass communication was starting to influence personal psychology, she can’t have known how our broader culture would evolve over the subsequent years. The future of ubiquitous photography and video, the explosion of selfies, the management of constructed identities on social media, the entrenchment of nearly constant surveillance, and countless other media- and technology-driven transformations of identity were too far over the horizon to see with any clarity. But that first initial instinct to unpack the definition of self in a media-saturated age turned out to be a surprisingly good one – it’s a rich, multilayered subject that has continued to keep the British artist busy for more than three decades.

Given our American fascination with these themes, Wearing’s work should be much better known here than it is; while she’s had plenty of museum support in the UK and Europe over the years, and she won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1997, this overdue show at the Guggenheim will be the first full retrospective of Wearing’s work in North America. For many in New York, this will be their first real taste of Wearing’s incisive perspective, and the exhibit’s timeliness in grappling with so many relevant contemporary ideas will likely feel in equal parts thrilling and profoundly unsettling.

Finding that edge of uncomfortable emotional dissonance is something Wearing seems to deliberately search for in her art, and the fact that she has found it decently often over such a long period of art making says that she’s been consistently insightful about honing in on the undefined place where conventional social reassurance breaks down. Wearing’s first breakthrough came with her photographic series Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992–93). The artistic premise of the project is engagingly straightforward – enlist strangers for street portraits, where each sitter holds a paper sign with a message he or she wrote themselves. And while the conceptual framework is simple, the results are smartly disconcerting – we as viewers want to make assumptions about peoples’ lives and personalities based on how they look, and when the interior thoughts of the sitters don’t match our expectations, the complex friction is very real. The young man in the business suit with the sign reading “I’m desperate” has become a touchstone of the project, but signs that read “I am depressed at the moment”, “I hope I get the job ‘cos my money is running out”, and “I don’t want to look like a boy” reach for similarly subtle feelings, anxieties, and internal identities that aren’t captured by the faces we show to passersby on the street. Some thirty years on, the project still feels fresh, vital, and unexpectedly insightful, mixing an easy-going documentary aesthetic with a jolt of confessional performance.

A number of Wearing’s strongest efforts from the rest of the 1990s take form in video, rather than still photography. Two mid-decade works take a page out of psychological studies of deviant behavior. In one (Dancing in Peckham, 1994), Wearing dances alone in the middle of a covered shopping court, making her moves while shoppers pass by and stare; her general obliviousness to their attentions and her internal focus on the dancing make for exaggerated opposition. In another (Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw yesterday down Walworth Road, 1995), Wearing wraps white bandages around her face and walks down the street, essentially trying on the identity of the woman she had seen previously; again, her surreal presence attracts looks and reactions from other nearby workers and pedestrians, as she performs in public as someone else, complicating the roles of observer and observed.

Wearing’s videos from the next few years introduce more overt misdirections and confusions, reversing roles and further disrupting our assumptions about what we’re being shown. 60 Minutes Silence (1996) isn’t quite what the title advertises, but an approximation; what appears to be an ordinary police squad photograph turns out to be a video of regular people dressed in police uniforms, who proceed to try to stand quietly for the picture, but end up coughing, shuffling, scratching, shifting, and generally breaking with the required strict order of the proceedings, giving the whole extended playacting enterprise a feeling of gathering discomfort.

Sacha and Mum (also 1996) makes the conclusions drawn about what exactly is happening in any one scene all the more difficult to decipher; the short video shows a mother and daughter alternately embracing, fighting, reconciling, protecting, and rejecting each other (in back and forth rewinds), with an intensity of familial emotion that leaks toward erratic trauma. And while the playing of these roles is certainly confusing, the mother and child roles in 2 into 1 (1997) are even more strangely reversed, with the interview voices transposed, with the mother speaking the child’s thoughts and vice versa (there are twin boys, so one or the other might be speaking with the mother’s voice). In these two works, Wearing is deliberately testing the limits of certain roles and identities, and recalibrating (and upending) the related interpersonal family dynamics.

Starting in the 2000s, Wearing began to experiment with self-portraits made using life-like silicone masks. Her first image in the series was a self-portrait wearing a mask of herself at that moment, so essentially inhabiting herself and peering our from within her own eyes. It’s an eerie, vaguely disturbing picture, with the waxy deadpan expression of the mask concealing Wearing’s own face, but of course, also showing us a version of herself in some manner – unraveling the nested mask-wearing and identity-layering here will make your head spin. (To make your mind bend even further, Wearing then roughly a decade later (in 2011) made another self-portrait of herself in the original mask from 2000, placing her older self inside that first face.) In a sense, this work links back to an earlier black-and-white photograph from 1991, where Wearing sits with an image of herself holding a picture of herself which holds a picture of herself, ever telescoping inward in a tunnel of self.

Over the next five years or so, Wearing would go on to use silicone masks to re-inhabit both herself at different ages and various members of her family. Part of this effort is an uncanny exercise in photographic time travel, with Wearing going back to peer out from her own eyes at age three and age seventeen. Her results are both creepy and provocatively thoughtful, her adult eyes now lodged in younger bodies and making us wonder about what it might feel like to drop back into our younger selves armed with the knowledge of adulthood. Wearing then goes several steps further, inhabiting individual images of her grandparents, her parents, and her siblings, each one seeming to wrestle with the question of how Wearing is connected to these other personalities, and how she might have seen herself in their roles or identities. Again, these masked role-playing self-portraits are freakishly spooky, mixing gender and elapsed time and collapsing familial heredity and genetics, emerging into a parade of related faces that are at once versions of Wearing and variants that actually aren’t who she really is.

Over the next decade, and coming right up nearly to the present day, Wearing has continued to use masks to twist her ever evolving definitions and aspirations of self. In 2012, she made a photobooth strip of herself at 27, and another self-portrait as her “ideal self”. She then rewinds thirty years to make a self-portrait as herself as an artist in 1984, and then fast forwards to age herself to a rocking 70 years old. Along the way, she makes portraits of herself inhabiting the personas of artists important to her: Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Claude Cahun, August Sander, Weegee, Georgia-O’Keefe, Eva Hesse, and several others. In each of these cases, she peers out from within a hero or heroine, inhabiting their identities, both paying homage and testing out what it might have been like to live those alternate lives. While each of these recreations is extraordinarily peculiar, seen together, we see Wearing building up her own identity as an aggregation of pieces of these others.

When Wearing has stepped outside herself in recent years, she has made some of her most powerful video work, directly engaging with the hidden traumas and emotional scars that haunt her performative sitters. In these works, the line between fact and fiction gets deliberately blurred, so it’s not always easy to tell what is real and what isn’t. In Bully (2010), an improv group explores a theatrical scene where a bully confronts not only those who bullied him, but those who stood by and didn’t intervene, fiercely (and unexpectedly) bringing the main actor’s own emotional damage to the surface. And in Fear and Loathing (2014), pairs of silicone masked sitters tell private (but rehearsed?) stories of assault, prejudice, and other traumas (and fantasies), letting the truth come out while protected by the anonymity of the masks. In both works, we struggle not only with the intensity of the content, but with the questionable veracity of the setup, as the performative nature of public/private identity is amplified to the point of deliberate uncertainty.

The last rooms of the show (on the museum’s top floor) bring us to the present, including some of Wearing’s artistic responses to the pandemic lockdowns. In a certain way, we can see her moving in opposite directions at the same time: forward to a video made using deepfake AI software, where Wearing’s face is superimposed over the bodies of dozens of random volunteers, and backward to elemental watercolor and oil self portraits that capture quiet moments of loneliness and introspection. She is both seeing and accepting herself with more authenticity, and leveraging technology more aggressively to push the edges of who she can become.

While there is inevitably some unevenness across a busy career of three decades, what stands out most about this retrospective is how conceptually tight it generally is. Wearing has been deconstructing identity for a long time now, and as she’s aging, her insights into what we conceal and what we reveal, how we perform in public and for ourselves, how a self is constructed from contexts that link family, society, and even art history, and how masks can be used both literally and metaphorically have become increasingly mature, sophisticated, and nuanced. This has generally led to works that push harder and harder on what we’re comfortable with, and for some who visit this show, it’s altogether possible that the reaction will be that several of the works have gone too far or veer off center. But that feeling of being fundamentally disturbed about where the boundaries of identity ought to be is what is durably intriguing about Wearing’s art. As retrospectives go, this one is faithfully comprehensive and thoughtfully arranged, but the real payoff comes in how impressively unsettled and wrong-footed the best of her works leave us, as we exit back into our own versions of the real world.

Collector’s POV: Gillian Wearing is represented by Maureen Paley in London (here), Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York (here), and Regen Projects in Los Angeles (here). Wearing’s photographs have been only intermittently available in the auction markets in recent years, with only a handful of lots on offer in any given year. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $5000 and $50000.

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Read more about: Gillian Wearing, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Happy to see 3 stars for a Gillian Wearing exhibition.

    And for anyone in NY dithering about going along, you may have picked it up already from Loring’s review, while her pictures look easily read online they have considerable presence when on the wall right in front of you.

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