It’s hard to imagine artwork more radically transformed by the current social climate than Gillian Wearing’s, and not only because Wearing Masks, the subtitle of a survey now on view at the Guggenheim Museum, invokes the insanely divisive politics of face coverings during COVID-19. Twenty-five years ago, Wearing began enlisting volunteers in projects of soul-baring exposure. The photo-based work that resulted is often very dark, and sometimes — even more discomfiting — sort of funny. Always, it flies in the face of the currently widespread insistence, so deftly analyzed by Maggie Nelson in her latest book, On Freedom, that art undertake vigilant care for the dignity and wellbeing of subjects and viewers alike. True, the participants in Wearing’s work are often concealed by masks — moreover, she has increasingly turned the focus on herself, a subject from early on. Regardless of which way the camera is pointing, she shows a lively — and altogether merciless — interest in how people choose to tell their own stories. Under the current circumstances, that feels mightily bold, and highly salutary.

Among the earliest work included in the exhibition, curated by Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman, with X Zhu-Nowell and Ksenia Soboleva, is Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992), a series of photographs documenting responses to Wearing’s request of passersby that they “write down something that was in their head.” Mostly good-natured although occasionally dire (if only, perhaps, ironically so — one man pronouncing himself “desperate” looks suspiciously dapper and smug), the messages thus delivered are soon followed by videotaped revelations of various kinds of unmistakable misery. As she put it in the title of a 1994-95 video (not shown here), volunteers were invited to “confess all on video” — and not to worry, as they’d “be in disguise.” In Fear and Loathing (2014), the testimonies on offer tend to be deeply woeful and sometimes weird, but more often all too familiar — hence mostly, it must be said, pretty tedious. What is truly heart wrenching is the subjects’ stubborn, surely misbegotten belief that sharing secrets with strangers (one more time?) will be of any help.

Gillian Wearing, “Me: Me” (1991), gelatin silver bromide print, mounted on aluminum, 20 3/16 x 17 1/16 inches (© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

The provocations of 2 into 1 (1997), on the other hand, are startlingly unique. This video features twin 11-year-old boys seated side by side, slouching and squirming, shown in alternation with their frazzled mother. Children and parent have offered Wearing heartfelt reports of each other’s strengths and shortcomings; the kicker is that she had the parties lip-sync their opposites’ accounts, violating every precept concerning good-parent discretion and responsibility, on the one hand, and filial gratitude and respect on the other. An equally complicated perspective shift takes place in The Bully (2010), in which an adult who was bullied as a child directs a group of actors-in-training to reenact his torment; at the end, he goes at them, stopping short of physical violence but expressing a degree of rage that is truly scary, despite impenetrable ambiguity about whether the anger is real. Even the melancholy video We Are Here (2014) promotes skepticism, its sad tales of lost love, missed opportunity, and terminal loneliness almost too achingly poignant to be believed. Again, it isn’t clear who owns these narratives.

Gillian Wearing, Dancing in Peckham (1994), color video, with sound, 25 min. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Tracy and Gary Mezzatesta 2017.50 (© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

Equally uneasy relations between artist, subjects, and viewers propel Drunk (1999; not shown), a mesmerizing, monumental three-channel video of physical and emotional wreckage; the subjects are simultaneously protected (from self-consciousness) and bared (to the viewer) by their inebriation. From the same territory come seven woozy photographs of an alcoholic in bed with a succession of her boyfriends, who each assess her character in a handwritten note framed below. There is precious little kindness, or coherence, in these wobbly accounts — nor does Wearing provide much in the way of sympathy. What she does offer is the suggestion that alcohol, like other drugs, is a kind of mask, though described by drinkers (and users) as a way to “get right” — and, just as dubiously, a portal for brutal honesty. 

In curatorial remarks, Trotman called the work involving volunteer subjects Wearing’s “public-facing” projects, as if it provides a kind of essential service, a comment as telling about the changing language of art talk as it is about Wearing’s work. For a 2002 survey at MoCA Chicago, the curator’s essay cited ethnographic studies, suggesting that Wearing is engaged in a dispassionate survey of contemporary human behavior. She herself cites the sociologist and behavioral scientist Erving Goffman, and counts as a crucial influence Michael Apted’s revelatory 7-Up documentary series, which followed, at seven-year intervals, Brits of a wide variety of class backgrounds from childhood into their mid-60s. In Apted’s gimlet-eyed epic, everything is fair game.

But unlike Apted, Wearing long ago turned the camera on herself, first in an extended, justly celebrated series (2003 to 2012) in which her eyes can be glimpsed behind masks constructed from photographs of her parents, grandparents, brother, and sister, and also herself as a child, teenager, and 27-year-old. She has noted that these time-shifting images provide the marks of aging that experience should leave on a face but often doesn’t. Also offering identifying information not otherwise evident is a later series in which Wearing wears masks taken from highly theatrical self-portraits of her “spiritual” family, which ranges from Albrecht Dürer to Marcel Duchamp, Claude Cahun, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Diane Arbus. That Arbus has particular meaning for Wearing is confirmed in the bronze statue she made of the photographer, now installed (courtesy of the Public Art Fund) at the southeast corner of Central Park. Life-sized (that is, diminutive), standing right on the pavers, camera at the ready, she is a stealthy presence. Arbus, of course, has herself been criticized for her remorseless exposure of debility and strangeness — and also praised, as she is implicitly by Wearing, for her frank interest in humanity’s full spectrum.

Installation view, Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 5, 2021–April 4, 2022 (Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021)

Inside a glass-fronted case tucked into a rear gallery are masks used for these and other photos, hung in rows and creepily lit, as if in a Halloween store. Surprisingly cheesy, they seem unlikely to yield the uncanny verisimilitude of the photographs, making it clear that Wearing’s project is not so much about physical concealment as about photography at its most hypnotically deceiving. (The handful of sculptures on view, which include, in addition to the Arbus tribute, small models for monuments to a 9/11 rescuer and a veteran of the Afghanistan war, a double self-portrait, and an oversize charm bracelet, don’t have the same charge.) Catching the artist’s real — that is, photographed — eyes through her many face coverings, we accord them a fully tangible living presence for which there is no logical basis. 

In the splashy video Wearing, Gillian (2018), produced by a big advertising company, Wearing is played by a variety of actors, male and female, young and old. At one point, all pronounce some variation of the line, “Hello, my name is Gillian Wearing, and I’m an artist,” a clear echo of the 1950s-era television game show To Tell the Truth, where panelists had to guess which of three contestants actually bore the identity they each claimed. Plenty more pseudo-commercial hall-of-mirrors material is in Wearing’s script, along with such dizzyingly circular testimony as, “Watching me be me alienates me.” But the expression of self-estrangement that recurs in her work sometimes speaks, earnestly, for the dissociative nature of trauma. In this video, Wearing alerts us, too, to actors’ reliance on personal emotional experiences when portraying scripted ones; neuroscience can’t presently specify how the two mental states differ. 

Installation view, Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, November 5, 2021–April 4, 2022 (Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021)

Wearing’s original engagement with these issues appeared hard on the heels of the emergent understanding, promoted by feminist theorists, that gender — and identity generally — is a masquerade. Cindy Sherman and others, from Martha Wilson to Nikki S. Lee, had been or soon would be suggesting as much in their photographs. Their work is kin to Wearing’s; so are Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black and white portraits of Madame Tussaud’s wax figures, which, like Wearing’s work, demonstrate how photography enhances credibility. An instructive comparison can be made also with Gauri Gill’s photos, recently on view at James Cohan. Made in India, they show subjects wearing colorful handmade animal-head masks; the rest of their bodies, as well as their postures and settings, establish an affecting, quotidian vivacity — an opening to empathy that Wearing forecloses. 

Wearing’s Lockdown paintings (actually begun shortly before COVID) are, in contrast with other recent work, markedly modest. In these small self-portraits, painted on paper or board, there is the implication of intimacy — finally, we see her hand at work, her face (mostly) unprotected. But she seldom looks at us in these renderings, which is particularly striking given how important it is to her photographic self-portraits that she stares right at the camera. Moreover, self-portraits drawn from life, as most of these are said to be, require the artist to look into a mirror, hence at us. The aversion feels deliberate, and personal. Which, paradoxically, provides the intimacy her work trains us not only to doubt, but also to hungrily desire.

Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 4, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Jennifer Blessing, Senior Curator, Photography, and Nat Trotman, Curator, Performance and Media, with X Zhu-Nowell, Assistant Curator, and Ksenia Soboleva, Jan and Marica Vilcek Curatorial Fellow.

Nancy Princenthal is a Brooklyn-based writer whose book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art received the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. Her most recent book is Unspeakable Acts: Women,...