Museum  January 7, 2022  Howard Halle

“Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks” Weakened by Heavy Handed Concept

Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021.

Installation view, Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 5, 2021–April 4, 2022.

Besides a play on her name that’s a little on the nose, Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks also represents the first North American retrospective of the British conceptualist and Turner prize recipient’s thirty-year career. Featuring 100 works siloed in the Guggenheim’s tower galleries off the rotunda, the exhibit is both photo- and video-driven, and very reliant on wall labels in order to be understood—a hazard typical of conceptual art that may color your reaction to the show.

Gillian Wearing emerged in the early 1990s as part of the wave known as the YBAs—Young British Artists—a group that mostly comprised freshly hatched graduates from Goldsmiths art school in London. Pop cultural savants, adept at grabbing attention with épater les bourgeois enthusiasm, they trafficked in shock value and cheek, though that was less true of Wearing than it was of her contemporaries Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Tracey Emin. Still, however nuanced her approach seemed compared to theirs, she was hardly shy about provoking audiences.

Wearing’s most recognizable work remains her 1992–93 breakout, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, in which she gave street photography a performative gloss by asking passersby to pose with placards written in their own hand that expressed their feelings at the moment.

© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Gillian Wearing, Best Friends for Life! (from Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, 1992–93). Chromogenic print, mounted on aluminum, 17 1/2 x 11 3/4 in. (44.5 x 29.7 cm).

One image is of a young white man in business attire who, despite the advantages conferred on him by his gender and race, holds a sign reading, “I’m desperate.” Key to the piece is his expression: A tight smile that reveals no real emotion other than a guarded awareness of the camera. The photo is less of a portrayal than it is an attempt to capture someone at the instant he composes himself for public consumption.

For most of the past three decades, Wearing has focused on exploring the gap between our private lives and the way we self-reflexively fashion alternative selves (masks if you will) to confront the world. As Wearing’s work notes, how we’ve done so has been increasingly influenced by mass media to the point where we’ve essentially become the sum total of the content we consume.

Familial relationships likewise shape our personae, a dynamic Wearing considers in a couple of photographic series in which she takes a trip through the uncanny valley by depicting herself as different members of two families: Her actual one (parents, grandparents, siblings, etc.); and another, “spiritual” one composed of famous artists who inspired her (Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol, among others). In both, she stares out of photos of each subject through eyeholes cut from the print in spooky mansion style, suggesting that we are who we’re haunted by. 

Elsewhere, a video installation features actors portraying a mother and daughter respectively, with the former abusing the latter by grabbing her by the hair and dragging her around a room. The film, which prudently comes with a trigger warning, is shot in black-and-white, making it resemble a Sadean take on postwar kitchen sink drama.

Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021.

Installation view, Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 5, 2021–April 4, 2022.

In the last decade or so, Wearing has adopted more traditional techniques: Sculpture in the form of maquettes proposing grand public monuments that celebrate ordinary people, as well painting and drawing. Recently, she’s employed both to refer to the pandemic with pieces that include “Lockdown” self-portraits done in watercolor and oils, as well as an assemblage depicting a mask wearing another, surgical mask—a heavy-handed comment that illustrates the pitfalls of using art to personalize a universally shared calamity.

Today, social media has made Wearing’s concerns seem somewhat quaint with Tik-Tok and Twitter dissolving any distinction between public and private. While Wearing arguably anticipated the first with a 1994 video of herself dancing in a mall to a tune in her head, it’d be illuminating to see what she’d make of developments now, as long as it didn’t require too much reading. 

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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