a A face wearing a mask over the mouth and nose greets you upon entering Gillian Wearing’s Lockdown Gallery. All of the masked faces are like you pass at the stations or in the supermarket, but the eyes are empty holes, and under the face covering there is a second mask, lifelike and made of soft latex. The outer mask is easy to remove: take it off and feel yourself again. The mask that is your face is very difficult to remove. But with the calm and loneliness of earlier this year, Vidding set out to peel off all layers and see herself inside, a woman without a mask.
This surrealist statue is the only new work in this exhibition that appears to be “dressed”. The Turner Prize winner It is famous for its videos and photos. The first mask she takes off here is her official artistic identity as a camera person. She comes in front of us naked, because she may have considered her first year of art school: not a famous conceptual artist, just a loyal person who does not like to draw and paint.
Drawing her selfie is Wearing’s lockdown project. And the first reaction should be: You hid this talent very well. Wearing not the first young British artist in the 1990s to come out as a middle-aged painter. But in the event that some unconvincingly stumble upon oils, mess up with a shed on their property, it has the technical competence to silence even the most sensitive of connoisseurs. The show begins with a poetically bleak tribute to the early 20th century painter Gwen John He who wears it sits miserably in a long red dress. He announces a brave journey through what appears to be a special Hell.
We never see why shutting down Wearing was such a hell. In one of the photos, she was crumpled next to what might have been a hospital bed. Her face filled with emotions looks like that of someone walking in silent agony across Albert Square.
Here I am – Imagining a TV series behind the pictures. It is not easy to depict the truth without turning it into stories. Even staring at the mirror, with a pencil in hand, does not easily find the wearer’s simple facts. This difficult search for truth is the theme of the exhibition. She begins to paint herself watercolor, temporarily, by playing softly with her own image. Then, as she built confidence in her ability to paint a selfie, she began using oil paints. The results are bolder and sharper.
Some watercolor looks, at first, a little easy. It is true that wearing it is a skill. But the mask is still on. In Lockdown Portrait 2, she rests her head on pillows and looks hollow, as if exhausted from tears – but her dress’s pretty design, a field of tiny brown circles, distracts from the emotional intensity. It’s like she’s still getting used to photographing herself and can’t totally own her own image.
Then I noticed something. Looking away from the spectator wears its mysterious space. This violates the rules – and technical requirements – of the traditional self-portrait. If the artist is not looking directly at us, that means that she is not looking at herself in the mirror either. How did she paint herself?
A quick phone call from gallery maker Maureen Bally to Wearing answered my query. Some of these paintings were made with a mirror, but others were placed as photographs, then painted – another layer of self-alienation. Wear looks at herself from the outside as a thing. In one of her strangest oil paintings, she lay on the studio floor, her head off the ground, her brown eyes staring at the ice. You could be dying. But she’s not that person now. It’s the other woman with a paintbrush in her hand. This is not a proud self-portrait but rather a philosophical question of who she is. Her studies wear herself, her image – long dark hair that hasn’t changed much since she made a young video of herself Dancing in Beckham – She wonders whether this is her reality, or just another mask.
The show is not a progress, after all. You do not find the final truth. Alternatively, photos of a public face that are recognizable – Jillian is wearing CBE – instead with brutally collapsing finds that seem special. It’s hard to believe they’re all the same person. Like any truly honest and brave personal illustrator, Wearing sees another person every time you look in the mirror or take a selfie.
The confident posture lends itself to the realization that she’s wearing a mask: then take it off and start over. This time there is no kidding, just as Francis Bacon used to say, “the brutality of truth”.
Wearing starts from doubt about the nature of oneself. But she is pushing towards a truth as ugly and beautiful as any one Lucien Freud illustrated: the incarnate cruelty of man. She has always sympathized with our vulnerability, the man in a suit and holding up a sign that says “I’m Desperate”. Here she removes all emotions to reveal our fragile mortal state. It looks like it can do with a break from thinking about it.