Masked Mask: Gillian Wearing’s Lockdown - whynow

Masked Mask: Gillian Wearing’s Lockdown at Maureen Paley and beyond


Untitled (lockdown portrait), oil on board, 30.5 x 40.5 cm, 2020

In Lockdown, the inimitable (except by herself) Gillian Wearing pivots her long-standing fascination with masks to examine this strangest of present moments. Delicate watercolour self-portraits line the walls, almost traditional — until you realise they won’t meet your gaze. 

Gillian Wearing’s exhibition Lockdown at Maureen Paley was made during, um, lockdown. Fitting; after all, if you were going to pick someone to produce a pandemic-specific installation, Wearing would be a natural choice. 

Posing in astonishingly true-to-life masks of her younger self and family members, the images hover between intimate and eerie.

Working with masks since the beginning of her career, investigations into interiority and degrees-of-remove are the artist’s speciality. Her series Album, for instance, saw the artist (re)create the Wearing clan’s photo archive. Posing in astonishingly true-to-life masks of her younger self and family members, the images hover between intimate and eerie.

Untitled (lockdown portrait), oil on board, 30 x 30 cm, 2020

Is that me in the mask?

Meanwhile, 1994’s Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… brought ten mask-wearing strangers together for a half-hour video wherein they announce secrets and personal revelations. More recently, Rock ’n’ Roll 70 involved Wearing digitally aging herself into various possibilities: a septuagenarian punk, a kindly grandmother and a surgically-enhanced biker girl, to name a few. 

All this to say, Wearing’s built a career out of mediating her own image; by mining that looping self-reflection, her work teaches us about our own refractions and distortions. And have we ever had more time on our hands for an existential crisis than the last six months? Wearing, for one, has produced fuel for a scorcher. 

Having long planned a return to painting, a medium otherwise absent from her practice since art school, Wearing’s intention to translate herself via traditional pigment-on-paper took on new resonances as the coronavirus crisis took hold. One presumes that, even for a Turner-Prize-winning household-name, studios might cease production in the grip of a pandemic (hard enough to produce movie grade prosthetics or install groundbreaking public sculpture at the best of times, amirite.) At Maureen Paley, self-portrait after self-portrait lines the gallery walls. Rendered in delicate watercolour, the canvases seem practically conservative — until you look closely.

Untitled (lockdown portrait), oil on board, 40.5 x 30.5 cm, 2020

Watercolour Mirror

Wearing’s return to basics, then, was as fortuitous as it is tantalising; certainly, the tableaus reward some time. If you were going to sketch a shorthand for the series as a whole, you might summarise with something like head-and-shoulders, soft colours, candid. Their backgrounds, though, tell as much of a story as Wearing’s face(s). 

Sometimes, she’s horizontal — looking up from a bed, rather than across space sitting or standing. In one, she’s lying on the floor; her hair describes its surface, the only clue that all is not as it should be in a composition which otherwise reads as a simple profile turned on its side. In another, she’s wearing one of her infamous masks.

Lockdown Portrait 1, framed watercolour on paper, 30.3 x 22.8 cm, framed: 39.5 x 31.5 x 2.6 cm, 2020

Lockdown Portrait 3, framed watercolour on paper, 31 x 23 cm, framed: 39.5 x 31.5 x 2.6 cm, 2020

Lockdown Portrait 4, framed watercolour on paper, 30.9 x 23 cm, framed: 39.5 x 31.5 x 2.6 cm

Circles within circles

The self-contained-ness of that gesture — pulling oneself through layer upon layer of mediation, from photo/reflection to paint via a mask based on one’s own visage — brings us neatly to the exhibition’s sole sculpture. While it’s the only work in the room that screams ‘Wearing’, that stark incongruity only cements the palimpsestic depth of its neighbouring watercolours. Here’s a mask, wearing a mask: Mask, Masked, 2020.

bending to meet the wax’s eyeless gaze, one face looks into another beneath their respective layers of veiling.

A wax cast of a face — I’d say it was Wearing’s, though it’s hard to tell — is half-covered by a fabric barrier. You know the type; you wore one on the bus here, in the supermarket last night. Suddenly ubiquitous, masks have taken on a more immediate resonance than we could have anticipated just months ago. Of course, I have to wear one in the gallery; bending to meet the wax’s eyeless gaze, one face looks into another beneath their respective layers of veiling.

Mask Masked, fabric mask, wax sculpture, steel rod and wooden plinth

Oh, how far we’ve come

Look. If you could screenshot my facebook feed today and show it to me this time last year, I would have thought it was a (not very funny) joke. Apart from the initial raft of stomach-churning headlines, or even the emerging genre of casual bulletins which refer to R-rates and T-cells like we all know what they are (we do), the little algorithm which used to show me ads for pretty shoes has started throwing me ads for silk face masks. Aha, twenty-something woman, it thinks. She’ll be stocking up on fashionable pandemic supplies. 

Where first it felt like we were living in a disaster movie, the current atmosphere is increasingly one of creeping acceptance. Is it better or worse that masks have become so normal that you don’t notice them until they’re on a plinth? That a stroll down the highstreet takes you past teenagers clad in the height of cool, which now includes a strip of cloth over their mouth and nose? That Louis Vuitton has brought out a peak-cap-cum-face-shield for the low low price of £750? That I’ve thought, while getting ready in the morning — hmm, blue or green for today’s ensemble? What has happened?

Your Views, colour video with sound, currently 162 minutes and 40 seconds, 2013 – present

By degrees

It’s hard to remember, but when face masks were first on the cards, they seemed bizarre. An insane imposition. Impossible to imagine. They cover half a face; in bitter English weather, that’s often the only bit of skin we leave exposed. 

Faces hold eyes and mouths, which means they hold glances and smiles and grimaces and endless other cues which are not just supplementary to communication: they constitute it. Think of the nuance lost from communication when we’re basically shouting through a wall. It’s a bit like being underwater, or speaking in a second language — doable, but exhausting.

Untitled (lockdown portrait), oil on board, 40.5 x 30.5 cm, 2020

What’s a little mask between friends?

If that sounds like I hate masks, I don’t. But I have been thinking about them as one of the pandemic’s myriad intrusions into normal life — forget the virus itself, consider the drag on energy and emotional bandwidth which seemingly small things are adding up to. When Wearing adds a mask to her mask, then, she’s alluding to that insidious remove. Her oeuvre has long highlighted the function of identities pulled on and off like pieces of clothing, and this (never ending) season’s hottest new accessory is only an extension of that thinking. 

With that lens in mind, what to make of Wearing’s watercolours? What happens to a work of art, especially one which feels so intimate, when it’s placed in front of an audience? As much as masks obscure our readable selves, they’re inherently public — after all, we wouldn’t need them if it weren’t for the uncomfortable fact that viruses spread when we encounter others. Tubes, shops, museums: today, wearing one or not denotes context at a glance.

Lockdown Portrait 5, framed watercolour on paper,30.4 x 21.2 cm, 12 x 8 3/8 inches, framed: 39.5 x 31.5 x 2.6 cm, 2020

Intimate exteriority

Wearing’s paintings feel like they’re revealing something personal; soft lines, close ups, domestic spaces. Considered in combination though, they’re repelling that very reading. As Album staged the intimacy of family photos while withholding all the background which would produce an archive like that in real life, so the watercolours simulate familiarity while roundly rejecting it. 

Products of a conversation between Gillian and Gillian (and Gillian, and Gillian, and Gillian), the small canvases both hold and resist our gaze. The artist, subject of her own work, does not meet our eye — rather, she gazes always just above, or to the side. As such, we are not contacting her when we encounter these countenances; rather, we’re watching her contact herself. Whether you’d term that more or less intimate than communing directly is for you to decide, I suppose.

Windows on the world beyond four walls became priceless this spring, as life shrunk down to domestic scale before our eyes.

Look again

Your Views verges on hypnotic: its rhythm, the rise and fall of still shots stitched together, is interrupted only by the footage’s ambient noise. Out the window, a favela? A suburb? Syracuse snow, or tropical verdance? Wearing’s geographical slot machine holds attention just long enough to reclaim it, pulling the lever every ten seconds to deliver us who-knows-where. For the stranger behind each camera, though, there’s not much to remark on; familiarity breeds boredom, and no one has the energy to be delighted by the view out their window every time they pass it. That is, unless they’ve nothing else to look at.

Windows on the world beyond four walls became priceless this spring, as life shrunk down to domestic scale before our eyes. While we teeter between collapsing anew and marching on heedless, Your Views makes a spectacle of our most humdrum (and claustrophobic) vistas. For all their globe-spanning specificities, every video is taken from the inside looking out. As in Wearing’s watercolours, the boundary between in- and exterior is uneasy; on the one hand, no masks here. On second thoughts, better rephrase: none that you can see.

Rampa  They Will Be