Research notes – Gillian Wearing

I had a look online at Wearing’s series (some of the pictures can be found in her agent’s website, albeit not in order) in which she impersonates various members of her family as well as other artists to which she feels particularly connected. I was particularly intrigued by the technique she uses to produce these portraits, not being very clear at first if they were full re-enactments of the original images, with Wearing going into full make up, or simply shot through a paper mask made out of the original photograph, with the eyes cut-out to show Wearing’s. Reading about and investigating about some of the images, I came to the conclusion that at least some of them, if not all, were full recreations of an original image, or an idea coming from an original image. In “Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face” (link), for instance, there is no such an image from Claude Cahun (although this comes close enough), which means that Wearing impersonated Cahun in full for the image. The series includes two distinct sets: one in which Wearing poses as famous artists from the past; and another one for her family members and herself, in which most people is portrayed around the same time of their lives (ie at young age: <span>late teens / early twenties) and which the artists uses to explore and recollect aspects of her life and family’s life that she did not pay much attention to or knew little about (see for example, comments made in this interview about she rediscovering aspects of her mother’s early life, or reflecting on her life as a teenager). Aside from my curiosity about the technical aspects of the work, the family mask series looks to me like an attempt to create a flattened genealogical chart, in which we can see and explore generational gaps perhaps in a more clear way by virtue of the fact that everybody is taken around the same period of their lives (with few exceptions, such as in the case of Wearing’s grandparents, due to the fact she could not find images of them as youngsters). We can then see how the formalism of Wearing’s parents portraits (as mother Jean Gregory, as father Brian Wearing – perhaps taken around the same time as the image of her maternal grandfather used for the series) contrasts with the casual or more lively looks assumed by the portraits of her siblings. It is also interesting the choice of portraits to recreate herself as a teenager (see here and here), as she does look very serious, as if she was an older, more mature person. She mentions in the previously quoted interview that she remembers being a “tougher, vain even” person at that time. The series is a personal exploration, but it could have general relevance in a much as we feel connected to the idea that our present may be determined not only by our past, but also by the influences that others close to us may have exercised on us, and I think this series tries to highlight the fact that we often ignore or know little about the latter, even if the source of that influence (eg our immediate family) is close to us. At a grander level I feel the series is about how we often overlook what surrounds us (family, work, friends) because it is familiar and present everyday routinely, but in reality greatly determines how the live our lives.

The other mask series, in which Wearing poses as famous photographers or artists from the past, has more of an homage feeling to them. The technique used is probably the same or very similar to the one employed for the family portraits series, and one could equally conclude that Wearing is trying to step into the shoes of these other famous artists when recreating (original) or re-interpreting (likely original inspiration) those moments. However, the significance of these cannot be the same as that of the family series because Wearing has a different connection to these people, a connection which is not only second-hand (some of these artists died before she was born, and consequently there is no chance she could have met them in person), but also limited to a particular sphere of her life (ie the professional or artistic sphere). Although the hierarchical relationship in here seems to be one directional in principle (ie Wearing admires and /or was inspired by these people, she does not seem to suggest, by impersonating them, that she considers herself their equal), at some point the portraits in this series feel like a collaboration of sorts, like if Wearing was taking over from where these artists left off. In addition to re-creations in which Wearing adds her own distinguishing touches (like in the previously referenced Cahun portrait – link – where she added a mask of her face), some of the straight reproductions are done slightly differently. For instance, the Mapplethorpe self-portrait includes more depth and definition around the facial expressions than the original. It is also illuminated differently, with more light coming from the left hand side as evidenced by the specular highlights in the walking stick being held by Wearing (the two images can be compared side by side here – the first image is Wearing’s reinterpretation, while the second one is the original by Mapplethorpe – one can use the left and right keys in a computer to toggle between the two and discover the subtle differences, as both images are shown at the same scale). The complication with this interpretation is the Wearing is not only looking at self-portraits made by the artist she is paying homage to, but actually some of the images that served as inspiration were taken by third parties. For instance, I believe that her Warhol in Drag portrait primarily comes from the series of images made by Richard Avedon of Warhol shortly after his attempted assassination in the late 60s (see for instance here). If we were to look into the series more in-depth, I wonder if Wearing is exploring issues of sexuality and feminism through some of these shots: Cahun was famous for posing or masquerading as a men in many of her photographs, whereas Warhol assassination attempt was undertaken by a feminist activist whom he seems to have treated dismissively. Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, which seems to have been ambiguous at some point, played an important part in his work.

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(1) Maureen Paley | Gillian Wearing. 2018. Maureen Paley | Gillian Wearing. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/gillian-wearing?image=1. [Accessed 27 January 2018].

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