Conceptual artist Gillian Wearing won Britian’s Turner Prize in 1997—among a “shortlist” of four artists, all female. Done to correct the all-male shortlist of 1996, this initially created a hoopla—a hoopla that largely dissipated when the work of the women was actually exhibited. A major solo exhibition of new work by Gillian Wearing—presenting an epic survey of accomplishment since her last major New York exhibition in 2003—is up at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery through June 24, 2011. Featuring new and recent video installations, photographic series, and sculptural work, the exhibition occupies both gallery floors and all four of its public spaces. Continuing her renowned and influential exploration of identity, performance, and storytelling, Wearing describes narratives that land on the edge of public and private, fiction and documentary, and raw improvisation and carefully staged. In projecting these issues through a lens of personal memory, cultural history, and media, a unique and compelling psychological resonance persists throughout.
In Tanya Bonakdar Gallery’s main gallery space on the ground floor, “Snapshot” is a monumental seven-channel video installation paying homage to the evolution of still photography through the implementation of moving images. While tracing still portraiture’s evolution throughout time, it presents an explicit “timeline.” Informed by old photographs—at the same time evoked through moving imagery—seven different women at various stages of life, are depicted on seven monitors corresponding to various eras in the 20th century. Ranging from youth to old age, an anonymous narrator describes the memories of these women, which are—at once—personal and universal. Evident in Snapshot is the influence of Michael Apted’s groundbreaking and poignant “Seven-Up” (Granada Television 1964) upon Wearing. Seven-Up is a longitudinal British documentary series charting progress by a group of children in seven-year increments.
In the second ground floor gallery, Wearing’s latest video work “Bully” counterbalances Snapshot’s exploration of feminine identity. Presented in a black box space, this large projection stems from Wearing’s acclaimed feature length film “Self Made” (2010). Confronting the viewer with an individual’s catharsis in a revelatory moment, one can follow a fiction’s construction while it transcends a character’s personal story to become a “reality” for all participants. Bully showcases Wearing’s efficacy in the role of director. At the same time, her compelling elevation of the mundane offers an angst-ridden view of reality.
Wearing presents another major video installation in this show: “Secrets and Lies.” Within the confines of a small chamber—not unlike a confessional box—the viewer is confronted by one masked figure after another recounting intimately kept personal secrets such as infidelity and murder. Gleaned from announcements placed online, participants answered a call to "Confess All on Video." The disguised features of these participants combine with brutally open honesty, challenging construction of “self” versus portraiture’s very raison d’etre. The mask protects the confessor’s identity while it empowers them to speak truthfully.
In the main upstairs gallery, Wearing exhibits three major photographic works, each a self-portrait of the artist posed as figures from recent art history: “Diane Arbus,” “Robert Mapplethorpe,” and “Andy Warhol.” Each of these mythologized artists' practices profoundly influenced Wearing's own. In each composition, the artist donned a costume and prosthetics to occupy the place of her subjects. In the same room, as if in reverence to these three iconic personas, one finds Gillian Wearing's most recent work “People” (2011). Inspired by Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century, it depicts an elegant and complex arrangement of silk flowers in a small vase. One can only imagine the explosion of color, otherwise more intense and unreal due to the artificial coloration of the faux flowers. These flowers will never wilt or die, and while the piece references the past, the artificiality of its construction is not disguised and cannot be ignored.
Finally, two small bronze figures, Gervais (2010) and Terri (2011), are the first of a new body of work Wearing refers to as "social sculpture." Depicting lifelike renderings of apparently everyday people, plaques below the sculptures describe the heroic role each has held within the broader context of their society. Of particular significance for this exhibition in New York, Wearing approached NYPD officer Terri Tobin, a hero of the 9/11 disaster, to model for the depiction of "Heroine." Ten years later, through the simple bronze figure, Wearing discreetly resounds the monumental in the everyday man and woman.
In her range of works such as “Dancing in Peckham” (1994), “One Sixty Minute Silence” (1996), “Drunk” (2000), “Broad Street” (2001), “Fuck Cilla Black” (2003), “Family History” (2006), and those in this current show, Wearing has pushed the limits of portraiture in photography and video and drawn out—in all their complexity—narratives on various relationships between people. Her works focused in Peckham and South London bring the magic of that milieu—known so well to Americans through the literary works of Hanif Kureishi (and their film adaptations)—to the arena of the plastic arts.
In addition to being a recipient of Britain's most prestigious Turner Prize, Gillian Wearing is internationally regarded as one of the most influential artists of her generation—with her work exhibited at such institutions and venues as PS1, the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), Whitechapel Gallery (London), the Tate Gallery (London), City Racing (London), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), and K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Düsselfdorf).
Through June 24, 2011
521 West 21st Street NYC 10011