Gillian Wearing Has Turned Masks Into an Art Form

Robert G. Mull

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.

Gillian Wearing, the English conceptual artist, has long been fascinated with the interplay of photography and technology.

“It affects how we present ourselves,” our sense of identity, Ms. Wearing, who lives and works in London, wrote in an email. “To me it’s about intuiting the effects of it, being aware of its presence and how it molds us as much as the other way round. We are interconnected.”

Ms. Wearing has been creating provocative and penetrating works that probe questions of identity for three decades. Her portraits — of herself and others — are well known in Europe. A new exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum aims to introduce her to a wider audience.

“We have been mounting a series of exhibitions of women artists who work with photography,” said Jennifer Blessing, the museum’s senior curator of photography, “but who haven’t yet had a midcareer survey or retrospective in the United States.

“Gillian Wearing is a really important artist. She is very prescient in either taking advantage of or adopting new media even before they permeate culture.”

From Nov. 5 through April 4, 2022, the museum will present the first retrospective of Ms. Wearing’s work in North America. More than 100 photographs, videos, sculptures, and paintings will trace the development of her career, including early Polaroids and new self-portraits, with a focus on the last 10 years. Several new pieces will be on view for the first time.

“What really makes her work special,” said Nat Trotman, the curator of performance and media, who was the co-organizer of the exhibition with Ms. Blessing, is how she anticipates in very basic ways how we see ourselves and how others see us, “but in a way that has intense, emotional and psychological depth.”

The show’s title, “Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks,” chosen before the pandemic, refers to the artist’s use of masks to explore what the curators call “the performative nature of identity.” Masks are used as a device to help reveal the tension between deception and revelation, between private and public selves, to examine how people form their identities within familial, social and historical contexts, the curators said.

“Masks, both literal and metaphorical, have been a major feature of her work from the beginning in the ‘90s when she started using masks with her confessional pieces to help protect the identity of people who were revealing deep, dark stories from their past,” said Ms. Blessing, referring to video works presented in booth-style enclosures. The series is represented in the exhibition by “Fear and Loathing” (2014).

Ms. Wearing later started wearing masks herself in self portraits in which she appears as other people.

The roughly chronological exhibition will be installed in four galleries. Each gallery will be organized around a theme that runs through the artist’s work.

In her piece, “Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say” (1992–93), Ms. Wearing photographed strangers holding placards with messages they wrote about their innermost thoughts, like one of a businessman whose sign says “I’m desperate.” The series began the artist’s practice of inviting the public to participate in her artworks through classified ads, casting calls, and direct solicitation on the street to share people’s personal stories.

In her “Family Album” series (2003–06), Ms. Wearing photographed herself as members of her biological family; in her “Spiritual Family” series (2008–present) intended to represent Ms. Wearing’s chosen family, she dons realistic silicone prosthetic masks, wigs, costumes and uses lighting to disguise herself as figures from art history who have been important influences on her work, including the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer and the Mona Lisa.

“There’s humor in her work, and there’s also this darkness,” Ms. Blessing said. “It’s scary like Halloween, but it’s also funny, like Halloween.

In “Lockdown” (2020), a series of paintings made in response to the pandemic, Ms. Wearing departs from photography and digital media to employ more traditional media.

“Suddenly there was all this endless time,” Ms. Wearing said, it “became an opportunity to reacquaint myself with painting I had stopped when I was in my early 20s.”

She said she hoped the works captured her ennui, stillness, worry and fear — “a sense that illness could be close at hand.”

“Many people will have had similar experiences,” she said, “and I hope that will connect with the viewer.”

Mr. Trotman said that even in her recent work, “where it would seem as though she is getting at the identity of the true self, her identity seems to shift from painting to painting and becomes a mask hiding some unknown inner self.”

One of her newest pieces is “My Charms’‘ (2021), a large mixed media sculpture made using a 3-D printer.

“It’s a self portrait, broken up into different body parts that are hanging on a 14-foot-long charm bracelet,” Mr. Trotman said. “She’s been exploring painting during the pandemic, but she hasn’t left behind new technologies.”

Ms. Wearing was also influenced by more recent artists, including Claude Cahun, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The Guggenheim exhibition will coincide with Ms. Wearing’s new sculptural tribute to the photographer Diane Arbus, scheduled to open on Oct. 20 in Central Park, organized by the Public Art Fund. The idea came about after Ms. Wearing learned there were few sculptures dedicated to artists.

“I thought of Diane Arbus and Central Park, the importance of the park to her,” Ms. Wearing said. “It was like her studio, she made some of her greatest images there,” she said. “It is also near where she grew up.”

Ms. Wearing said she first saw Arbus’s work at a lecture on photography as an art student, but rediscovered her in the mid-90s. “There was a connection with street photography,” she said. “Arbus made such singular work.”

Several years ago, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston commissioned and displayed a large-scale installation of 100 photographic portraits by Ms. Wearing of herself and other people, aged digitally.

“In this era of selfies and Instagram, when there is a kind of self obsessiveness when it comes to documenting our own existence and identity on all these different platforms,” said Eva Respini, chief curator at the institute, “here’s an artist who’s been thinking about it deeply for a long time.

“Gillian has brilliantly, in many different bodies of work and in many different ways, been exploring how photography is particularly suited to questions of who we are and how we represent ourselves in the world,” Ms. Respini said.

“She has such a unique perspective and voice. I think that is what makes her so important in this conversation. At the end of the day, her work is about the human condition. People connect with it.”

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