The age of the mask is upon us and yet Gillian Wearing had decided, decidedly against the tide, to unmask herself in a series of paintings in her Lockdown exhibition at Maureen Paley. This necessarily aroused my curiosity since Wearing is known for her use of masks in her video and photographic works. Over the years, she has, with masks, covered faces including hers to better uncover identities as social constructs. In his review for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones notes that in a number of self-portraits the artist is not looking at the viewer and he concludes that her use of photographs rather than a traditional mirror brings to the paintings another layer of self-alienation to the genre.

Gillian Wearing, Lockdown Portrait 5, framed watercolour on paper, 2020

The fact that Wearing might have analysed herself as an object of study is not however what struck me when I visited the exhibition. I was surprised by how multifaceted the sitter was: melancholic, decisive, tired, tormented. Formally as well, Wearing does not refer to self-portraiture – the title of the series for that matter is Lockdown Portraits – and goes from realistic to ethereal via a fauvist-like representation of herself. Although recognizable, she is neither old nor young, idealised or rough. The thread between the paintings is the lockdown itself and the sheer intensity of emotions it brought. 

Gillian Wearing, Lockdown Portrait 3
framed watercolour on paper, 2020

Seeing so many variations of Wearing triggered the question: is she truly unmasked? The exhibition had brought to mind the 1834 play by Alfred de Musset, Lorenzaccio. Set in 16th century Florence, it recounts the life of Lorenzino de’ Medici as he sets to and kills Florence’s tyrant, Alessandro de’ Medici, his cousin. To fulfil his virtuous republican ideal, he wears the mask of debauchery so dear to his cousin. Once he has gained his trust and is therefore in a position to achieve his goal, he realizes that his mask has become his identity. ‘I only wanted a mask similar to their face […] I can no longer find myself’. Can Wearing find herself after having worn masks for so long? I left the room feeling like she did, that I had met her could because she did not opt for Musset’s Manichean stance of virtue vs. debauchery but for the recognition of a multiple self.

I then set off to the second room where I saw for the first time the video Your Views, an ongoing project started in 2013. As per the description in the press release, ‘the open submission project is comprised of short filmed sequences from contributors around the world showing their curtains or blinds opening to reveal a view from their window.’ Back in May, I wrote an article about windows. I noted that in these times of lockdown and stillness, our destinations remained the same and that as a result, the ever-changing view from our windows had our full attention. I went on considering how artists had approached looking out. Watching Wearing’s video, I realized that I had missed an essential point. Why did I find looking back so interesting? It was because we were all connected in isolation, going through the same motions, the same daily mundane activities. Wearing made sublime the simple gesture of drawing a curtain onto the forbidden outside world. A global, neutral, simple yet exalted connection. In the end, the self-portrait is the exhibition itself as in Lockdown, Wearing reminds us that the experience we went through at once exacerbated our multiple individuality and humankind’s commonality.

Gillian Wearing, Your Views, video, 2013 – present

Lockdown, Maureen Paley, 16 September – 01 November 2020, 60 Three Colts Lane, London E2 6GQ

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