Gillian Wearing’s lockdown self-portraits peel back the mask and show the truth

A face wearing a mask over mouth and nose greets you as you enter Gillian Wearing’s exhibition Lockdown. It is like all the masked faces you pass at stations or in the supermarket, but the eyes are empty holes, and underneath the face covering is a second mask, lifelike and made of smooth latex. The outer mask is easy to remove: you take it off and feel like yourself again. It is a lot harder to remove the mask that is your face. But in the quiet and loneliness of lockdown earlier this year, Wearing set out to peel off all the layers and see herself inside herself, a woman without a mask.

This surreal sculpture is the only new work in this show that looks like a “Wearing”. The Turner prize winner is famous for videos and photographs. The first mask she strips off here is her official artistic identity as someone who works with a camera. She comes before us naked, as she might have looked in her first year at art school: not a famous conceptual artist, just a sincere nobody who likes to draw and paint.

Painting her self-portrait is Wearing’s lockdown project. And the first reaction has to be: she hid this talent well. Wearing isn’t the first Young British Artist of the 1990s to come out as a painter in middle age. But where some have stumbled unconvincingly into oils, hamfistedly doodling in a shed on their estate, she has a technical competence to shut up the most fastidious connoisseur. The show starts with a poetically bleak homage to the early 20th-century painter Gwen John in which Wearing sits brooding wretchedly in a long red dress. It announces a courageous journey through what looks like a private hell.

We never see why Wearing’s lockdown was so hellish. In one picture, she is crumpled beside what may be a hospital bed. Her emotion-battered face looks like that of someone walking in silent agony across Albert Square.


Lockdown Portrait.

Peeling back the mask … Lockdown Portrait. Photograph: Mark Blower/© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley

There I go – imagining a soap opera behind the portraits. It is not easy to depict the truth without turning it into stories. Even gazing into the mirror, pencil in hand, Wearing does not easily find the simple facts. This difficult search for truth is what the exhibition is about. She starts out by drawing watercolours of herself, tentatively, gently playing with her own image. Then, as she builds up confidence in her ability to do a self-portrait, she starts using oil paints. The results are bolder, more acute.

Some of the watercolours seem, at first, a little facile. It’s true Wearing has skill. But the mask is still on. In Lockdown Portrait 2, she rests her head on pillows and looks hollowed out, as if exhausted by crying – but the lovely design on her dress, a field of little brown circles, distracts from the emotional intensity. It is as if she is still getting used to portraying herself and can’t quite possess her own image.

Then you notice something. Wearing is looking away from the onlooker, into her own enigmatic space. This breaks the rules – and technical requirements – of a conventional self-portrait. If the artist is not looking directly us, it means she isn’t looking at herself in the mirror, either. So how did she paint herself?


Lockdown Portrait by Gillian Wearing

Enigmatic … Lockdown Portrait. Photograph: Mark Blower/© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley

A quick phone call from gallerist Maureen Paley to Wearing answered my query. Some of these paintings were done with a mirror but others were set up as photographs, then painted – another layer of self-alienation. Wearing looks at herself from the outside, as an object. In one of her strangest oil paintings she lies on the studio floor, her head just off the ground, her brown eyes staring icily. She could almost be dead. But she is not that person right now; she’s the other woman, with paintbrush in hand. This is not a proud self-portrait but a philosophical questioning of who she is. Wearing studies herself, her image – the long dark hair that hasn’t changed much since she made a youthful video of herself Dancing in Peckham – and wonders if this the real her, or just another mask.

The exhibition is not a progress, after all. It finds no final truth. Instead, images of a recognisable, public face – Gillian Wearing CBE – alternate throughout with brutally collapsed, private-seeming revelations. It is hard to believe they are all the same person. Like any truly honest and brave self-portrait painter, Wearing sees someone else every time she looks in the mirror or takes a selfie.

A confident pose gives way to an awareness that she’s wearing a mask: then she pulls it off and starts again. This time there’s no kidding, just, as Francis Bacon used to say, “the brutality of fact”.

Wearing starts from a scepticism about the very nature of the self. But she pushes towards a truth as ugly and beautiful as any painted by Lucian Freud: the unvarnished rawness of the human. She has always had compassion for the fragility of us, the man in a suit holding a sign that says “I’m Desperate”. Here she strips away all sentiment to bare our frail mortal condition. She looks like she could do with a break from thinking about it.

The Guardian

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