In “People,” her first New York solo exhibition since 2003, Gillian Wearing presented a wide range of tremendously engaging recent photo-based portraiture. Most conceptually concise are big black-and-white photographs (2008-10) of the artist lurking nearly invisibly behind hyperrealist masks of famous artists in landmark photos: Andy Warhol showing off his scars; Robert Mapplethorpe clutching a skull-headed cane; Diane Arbus with a camera around her neck. The impersonations are revealed around the eyes, which are cut out so Wearing can stare through, a profoundly eerie effect she has worked with for several years.
It also appears in a nearly hour-long video, Secrets and Lies (2009), which features men and women who answered Wearing’s ad asking for subjects willing to confide to her camera. Screened in a small booth, their monologues, ranging from a few minutes to more than 20, are rich with lurid drama, including murder, incest and voluntary (but truly weird) sexual transgression. All wear lifelike but identity-concealing masks, cut out around mouths as well as eyes, so we see their darting glances and, hypnotically, their moving lips, never quite synced with the recorded narratives. The truth of their stories is of course impossible to judge; in any case, the point, as always with Wearing, is to determine whether the interposing layer of art—the masks, the costumes (a red hoodie for an abused child turned reformed homicidal thug; a flowered housecoat for a middle-aged mother turned sex-club swinger)—makes the stories more or less sympathetic, or disturbing, or credible.
Other work dispenses with masks but retains, in various ways, the displacements they offer. A group of seven video loops shown on flat screens, framed like photographs and called Snapshots (2005), presents the seven stages of life, female version. It starts with a young girl with an enormous bow in her hair playing the violin (speakers project her ostensible performance) and proceeds to an awkward adolescent, a sultry young woman, a beatific new mother with an infant in her lap and finally an older woman half-dozing in an upholstered armchair. (An audio recording provides, via headphones, the melancholy monologue of a self-described pensioner, whom we presume—erroneously, as it happens—to be this last video’s subject.) The actresses move only enough to heighten the sense of constraint imposed by the frames—and by the conventions in which they’re so tightly trapped.
The enormously powerful Bully (2010) is a compact 8-minute video. Nine gifted actors engage in an improvisational exercise about bullying, with one playing the director, who tells the others that they’re reenacting an incident from his own life in which he was the victim. At the end, in tears but also terrifyingly enraged, he accuses the actors of letting him down. Sheepishly, they apologize. It is nearly impossible to keep straight the roles of actor and director, victim and perpetrators. Rounding out the show were a large black-and-white still photograph of a monstrously abundant floral bouquet (People, 2011) and two pint-size, naturalistic bronze monuments, with text plaques, dedicated to unsung heroes, one a 9/11 survivor (Terri, 2011) and the other an undercover police cadet (Gervais, 2010). Their disguise, Wearing seems to say, is their ordinariness.