A portrait of the artist, unmasked.
She may be better known than any other artist today. Or rather, the look of Gillian Wearing's art must be known by more people. It's at the root of all those ads in which "average people" are photographed holding hand-scrawled signs revealing what they really want from a bank or a car.
But in Wearing's artworks, which launched her to stardom in 1993, the words have truly been scrawled by the subjects, and are often poignant. A cheery young banker type in suit and tie has made a sign reading "I'm desperate." "In Britain, we're a bit scared of showing our emotions in public," says Wearing, 47, who believes her art is about "people opening up, and saying things they've never said before." Instead of buying the old cliché that portraits peer into souls, Wearing lets her sitters decide what to reveal.
For 2 Into 1, Wearing asked a middle-class mother to talk about the virtues and vices of her two 10-year-old sons and also got the boys to dish about Mum. Then she videotaped the boys lip-syncing to their mother's taped words, and the mother doing the same to her sons'. All three protagonists are thus conveying someone else's opinions of them—often cruel ones.
One of her most striking, most disturbing projects is a series of photos in which she has cast masks of other people's faces, then photographed herself wearing them, leaving a seam where her eyes peer through the rubber. She's donned the face of her adult brother, and of herself at 17. And, in a new image made specially for NEWSWEEK, she's created a mask of what she looks like today, then put that on as an assumed persona. "At the heart of my work is portraiture," Wearing says. But her art is as much about resisting that genre as embracing it.