In the early 1990s, the conceptual artist Gillian Wearing began to make a name for herself creating confessional, guerilla-style performances with volunteers she sourced on the street or in newspaper advertisements. At the time, she was a 20-something grad from Goldsmiths College in London; eventually, she would become known for these emotionally intense projects, which tap into the tension between repression and revelation.
Starting in 1992, in a series titled “Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say,” she enlisted strangers to fill out blank pieces of paper with whatever thought came to mind and to pose for photographs holding them; in one image, a white man in a suit with a mirthless smile holds the message “I’M DESPERATE,” while in another a puckish teen flashes the sign: “GIVE PEOPLE HOUSES THERE IS PLENTY OF EMPTY ONES OK!” In 1994, the year that MTV released The Real World and invented the confessional, Wearing asked a group of strangers to share secrets about their lives on-camera. Participants wore wigs and masks to obscure their identities while they told intensely intimate stories about their childhood trauma or various sexual transgressions. The film is titled, rather absurdly: Confess All on Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian …
Wearing quickly ascended to recognition as one of the Young British Artists, or YBAs, defined by their use of unusual, sometimes shocking materials: Damien Hirst’s preserved tiger shark, Tracey Emin’s bloodied underwear, Sarah Lucas’s fried eggs. The YBAs were seen as iconoclasts and provocateurs, many of whom seemed comfortable in the public eye. Wearing, however, preferred to be anonymous — the conductor with her back turned to the audience. “When I made my first works, people often didn’t know who was behind them or what my gender was,” she later said.
Wearing’s work was eventually absorbed into the art world’s commercial machinations. Two decades after she made Confess All on Video, she paired with Wieden+Kennedy — the ad agency known for its work with Nike and Coca-Cola — to film AI-generated versions of herself and superimpose them onto the bodies of actors. The composite avatars are garishly lit, emblems of the uncanny valley. The video, which is called “Wearing, Gillian,” feels glitchy, unreal, and vaguely promotional, offering only a mirage of the artist. Her face is inescapable in the film, but because all of the images use face-swapping technology, the viewer is unsure if she is even really there. Much of Wearing’s work pokes fun at the impulse to conflate a person’s appearance with their psyche and private sense of identity. Though she often uses herself as a subject, we’re left with an incomplete, warped, and fragmented sense of who she is.
“Wearing Masks,” the artist’s first retrospective in the U.S. and now on view at the Guggenheim through April 4, features more than 100 of Wearing’s artworks — including photographs, paintings, videos, and 3-D-printed objects. (It’s not Wearing’s only presence in New York right now: In October, her cast-bronze sculpture of Diane Arbus, organized by Public Art Fund, was unveiled at the entrance to Central Park.) Organized in the hard-angled gallery rooms adjacent to the rotunda, the Guggenheim exhibit traces the now-57-year-old artist’s shift from publicly engaged performance maestro to introspective studio practitioner. Interspersed over the exhibit’s four floors are scintillating photographs and films that capture the theatrics of the everyday, full of alienation and vulnerability. It makes it clear that, at her best, Wearing’s work can be thrilling and moving and deeply unsettling, a smorgasbord of humanity.
Co-curators Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman organized the show partly chronologically and partly thematically. That approach can sometimes feel scattershot. There are several thoughtful pairings — like Wearing’s deeply felt black-and-white film about the troubled dynamic between a mother and daughter, Sacha and Mum from 1996, positioned close to “Snapshot,” a series of flickering images of unrelated women at different life stages that she made in 2005. But the layout’s narrative through-line mostly befuddles, making it hard to grasp Wearing’s evolution as an artist.
The most memorable work in the show is Wearing’s photo series “Family Album,” which she began in 2003. Transcending age and gender in meticulously planned photographs, she transforms into her grandmother, mother, father, brother, and younger versions of herself, wearing uncanny masks of these different faces — created with help from experts trained at Madame Tussauds — as well as wigs that range from her mother’s coiffed bob to her grandfather’s salt-and-pepper receding hairline. Each image is a re-creation of specific portraits of her family members, and the result is eerie: In a photograph where Wearing is dressed as her mother, we see a 1950s housewife with a cold, distant glare; in another, she’s dressed as herself as a little girl, with a doll-like face that is lined with subtle but distinct mask marks.
On the next floor of the show, we encounter a room of more luminous self-portraits, which she started to make in the early 2000s. In every photograph of this series, called “Spiritual Family,” Wearing shoots herself in restaged, iconic images of legendary artists, again with her face obfuscated by lifelike, silicone masks. In one work the artist poses, convincingly, as pop artist Andy Warhol, who himself is in drag as a woman. She dresses as Arbus, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Mapplethorpe. By wearing other artists’ features and adopting their gestures, Wearing seems to both align her artistic vision with theirs, and, paradoxically, to reveal the absurdity of the myth of the artist as genius. The masks form creases under her eyes, along her jawline, around her nostrils. Displayed in larger-than-life prints, the photos are both beautiful and disturbing, cartoonish in their bravado as they insert Wearing into the canon.
If there is any one idea that unites Wearing’s projects, it’s that the self is fundamentally unknowable. Her work in the ’90s and early 2000s examined the misalignment between public selves and private lives with a spirit of open-mindedness — whereas the more recent work in this exhibit falls flat precisely because it seems intended to evoke a specific response from viewers.
In 2013, Wearing started working on Your Views, a crowdsourced film project for which she put out an open call online and received more than 800 submissions from Hong Kong to Abu Dhabi to Kabul to New York City and Kolkata. Her goal was to feature at least one video clip from every country around the world, which she’s described as “a project that could connect people and countries, that was simple and universal.” The composite footage, displayed on a monitor at the Guggenheim as one continuous, nearly three-hour-long stream, is poignant in its subtle details — a bird taking flight, laundry blowing in the wind — but tends to lose power in the specifics. Some of the most recent scenes, filmed by people who are ostensibly in quarantine, show their neighbors gathering on front porches to clap for health-care workers. In light of recent division over COVID-19 misinformation, racial inequities in health-care access, and global disparities in vaccine availability, the image does not express universal togetherness so much as replicate a hollow gesture.
The most recent works, displayed in the uppermost room of the museum, are melancholic watercolors and paintings that the artist made at her home in London during the early months of the pandemic. The “Lockdown” series is a departure from Wearing’s inventive photographs and videos: The realistic self-portraits depict idle moments, where the artist is lying in bed or leaning against a wall, in watery blues, faded browns, and soft pinks painted directly on board. Seeing them in late 2021, unfortunately, casts them as the visual analog of the now-cliché pandemic diary — whose writers, as Parul Sehgal noted, “are an unusually cocooned bunch, safely distant from the world of layoffs, mass graves, Zoom funerals.” There’s little room for interpretation when the images are so heavy-handed. In the case of Mask Masked, a wax sculpture of a hand and hollowed face, a fabric mask is, quite literally, on the nose.
In Wearing’s most successful projects, she’s a chameleon, eschewing tidy narratives in favor of ambivalence and complexity. In trying too ardently to produce work that could be topical, Wearing veers off course. Her pandemic portraits make you long for a return to work like Dancing in Peckham, her 25-minute video documentation of a performance from 1994. Standing in the middle of a South London mall, the artist sways, twists, and nods her head, dancing not to music but to everyday sounds. It was the first time Wearing had appeared as the subject of her own work. The fascinated and at turns disturbed stares she attracts from passersby distill what made her early work so powerful: It expressed the strangeness of being perceived at all.