Staring through the eye-holes in ‘Mask Masked’, I find the gallery’s crisp white walls staring back at me almost luminous, recalling the convention of comic book illustrators who draw heroes pupilless to inspire awe, the same way that an ancient Greek bust whose detailed painted pupils, which have worn off over the centuries, nonetheless announce a victory over time. I’m hearing T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, ‘There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’, which I confess often jingle around my head, and I suspect the afterimage of Wearing’s sculpture might float up from time to time from now on, too.
Letting the Mask Slip
On the face of it, Gillian Wearing’s Lockdown at Maureen Paley is casual, conservative, and candid: a suite of watercolour and oil self-portraits hang next to a long video work stitching together prosaic views from windows across the globe. Also showing is a single wax sculpture of a mask cast from a face (probably the artist’s) wearing the kind of fabric face mask we’ve all lately become accustomed to; suitably, this work bears the frank, playful title ‘Mask Masked’ (2020). But the exhibition can’t be all that simple, since it’s stirring within me the vexed and self-satisfied thoughts of a stoned teenager.
"Staring through the eye-holes in ‘Mask Masked’, I find the gallery’s crisp white walls staring back at me"
I think that what I love about these lines, and about the sculpture, is that they express such a neat idea, but with not so neat expression: Eliot/Prufrock spoils his epic hexameter with an extra syllable, clumsily (deliberately) repeating ‘face’ and ‘meet’ in a neurotic and circular manner; Wearing similarly layers a facemask over her face to be worn over a face. The work then gets even more involved with the wax hand jutting out of a wooden plinth holding a steel rod holding the mask wearing a mask, a hand that is almost but not quite realistically proportionate and positioned. Shakespeare rendered the same or at least a similar idea very neatly indeed — All the world’s a stage — but what I enjoy so much here, and with Prufrock, is the laboured feel; works that speak to the vaguely annoying but also harmless and habitual job of putting on a smile to enter a shop, or now, at least, making sure your eyes are smiling as you pay for your milk and bread like a decent citizen, taking off your face mask and smile upon exit.
All this, of course, goes back way further than Shakespeare: the word ‘personality’ comes from the Latin persona, and a persona in the ancient world was a theatrical mask worn by an actor; while at the present moment, in light of the pandemic, we might be seeing masks anew, the question of how much of us they conceal or reveal, restrict or express is as old as the concept itself. Masks aren’t new for Wearing either. Her back catalogue is full of them.
Take 2003’s Album, a series of self-portraits of Wearing wearing true-to-life masks of her family members or herself at a younger age. ‘Self Portrait at 17 Years Old’, for instance, transports us back to the 80s, where the artist sits in her office junior clothes against the pleated orange curtain of a photo booth, her shock of black hair self-consciously covering one eye in a quasi-new romantic way. Look again, and you’ll see the adult Wearing’s eyes peering out from underneath the likeness of her teenage self, the present glinting through the past.
"Look again, and you’ll see the adult Wearing’s eyes peering out from underneath the likeness of her teenage self, the present glinting through the past"
Compared to Album’s palimpsests of reality and fiction, we could say Wearing’s Lockdown self-portraits are more direct in their approach. Lockdown 1 is a watercolour showing the artist sitting with her back against a wall of pollen-stain yellow, orange and pinks, her hands casually placed in her lap, which makes us feel relaxed — body language that says nothing to hide here. Lockdown 2 shows the artist exhausted, her head resting on pillows, while a brown, Alphabetti-spaghetti-like pattern dances about her dress. However, Wearing won’t meet our gaze; she looks over the onlooker’s shoulder, as if reminiscing, her mouth set in concentration. In other words, since we are to assume the painting wasn’t made looking directly into a mirror, what we have here is a slippery reconstruction of a photograph, after all.
To what extent are these works confessional, laying bare to unknown viewers emotions and thoughts that feel deeply private, and to what extent do they carefully keep feeling hidden? We could adequately call this series ‘pared back’ (especially compared to the silicone body casts and lighting and elaborate sets of Wearing’s oeuvre elsewhere) and we tend to associate fewer layers of design with truth or sincerity.
"To what extent are these works confessional, laying bare to unknown viewers emotions and thoughts that feel deeply private, and to what extent do they carefully keep feeling hidden?"
But perhaps the admission that there will always be masks beneath masks is the sincerest thing about Wearing’s work: all her subtle mediation serves to remind you that you are never just you: you are the photographs of you; you are you when you were seventeen; you are your parents, brothers and sisters; elsewhere, Wearing’s Rock ’n’ Roll 70 (2015) — a triptych featuring a self-portrait of the artist at 50, a digitally enhanced image of herself at age 70, and a blank space to be completed by a self-portrait when Wearing turns 70 in 2033 — suggests that you are also your hopes and expectations for who you might be. Part of the pleasure of the Lockdown series is that Wearing sees a different Wearing every time she looks in the mirror or reproduces a photo of herself, and of course they all add up to the same persona, whether public or private – if there is any inflexible distinction to be made.
One final inquiry that the exhibition makes into the divide between personal and shared experience is Your Views, which Wearing began in 2013, but has picked back up with pertinence during the pandemic. The conceit is very simple, but, as we’ve come to expect, it disguises a thrillingly mundane multiplicity: blinds or curtains open (once again alluding to the theatrical) to reveal snapshots of views from people’s homes across the world. Goats and cows stroll by the roadside in Karachi, Pakistan; huskies sit in the snow in Kusamo, Finland; neighbours stand on their stoops in London, England, clapping and banging saucepans for the NHS. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how significant our windows were as a point of connection to the outside world during the early stages of lockdown.
"The admission that there will always be masks beneath masks is the sincerest thing about Wearing’s work"
Sometimes, in Your Views, a curtain opens, and- oh, it’s just drizzle falling on someone’s back garden. At other times, you’re halfway around the globe immersed in a place that, to you, seems exotic, but for the person filming is just the same old, same old. This sense of intermittent reinforcement (the reward of the surprising or unfamiliar is relished all the more, after we’ve earned it by suffering through the mundane) is hypnotic: the curtain rises. Whose life will we see into?
Even in Wearing’s most eerily convincing masked self-portraits, she is careful to leave enough room around the eyes for the viewer to see it’s a mask. Why is that? Are the eyes windows to the soul? Or windows after windows after windows after windows?
By Sammi Gale
Untitled (lockdown portrait), 2020
oil on board
30.5 x 40.5 cm
12 1/8 x 16 inches
© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London