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." An attractive young woman who looks like a boy scribbled “I don’t want to look like a boy.”
“I think it’s important to listen to people,” says Wearing, who is 47 and slim, with fine Nordic features, straight black hair and the hunched shoulders of classic British reticence, as though by stooping she might take up less space in the world. She is sitting in a back room at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, the day of her May opening there. She was born into the humblest of Birmingham neighborhoods, to a mother who had been a butcher and a TV-salesman dad. She fell into art, and art school, almost by accident, and she’s still not used to center stage. She speaks quickly and nervously, often looking down.
“In Britain, we’re a bit scared of showing our emotions in public,” says Wearing, who believes her art is about “people opening up, and saying things they’ve never said before.” Instead of buying the old cliché that her portraits peer into souls, Wearing lets her sitters decide what to reveal.
Often that’s only part of the story. For one of her best pieces, titled “2 into 1,” Wearing asked a middle-class mother to talk about the virtues and vices of her two 11-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. It’s confusing, compelling and unnerving.
In another excellent video, called simply Drunk, there’s not much talking by anyone, since the subjects Wearing taped are too smashed for words. She simply brings a number of alcoholics in off the street, puts them in front of a tidy white background, Avedon-style, and lets us watch as they rant and collapse.
“I hope that some of it is cathartic—for both the viewer and the people in the work,” Wearing says. But often her work is more about withholding and concealing than letting loose. It’s about identities we assume rather than hearts we expose.
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. In her latest suite of photos, on show at Bonakdar, we see her assuming the personas of Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Diane Arbus. Or rather, not assuming their personas, but only peeking out through their skin, revealing her own wary eyes.
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.