Gillian Wearing: “People” at Tanya Bonakdar

by Will Brand on June 6, 2011 Reviews

Date: THURSDAY, MAY 5TH 2011 – FRIDAY, JUNE 24TH 2011
Venue: Tanya Bonakdar521 West 21st Street
AFC’s Rating: 9/10 (Will Brand)

“I drink menstrual blood, straight from the source.” So opens one of the interviews in Gillian Wearing’s show at Tanya Bonakdar, an emotionally exhausting but exceptionally fruitful examination of portraiture and catharsis. Wearing has long been interested in portraiture—its aesthetics, its effect on the subject, its ability to reveal and conceal—and this show feels like a natural progression of that, containing some of her best work to date.

Snapshot, an installation of seven short, looped videos of subjects sitting for portraits, occupies the main space. They’re recreated, based on the aesthetics of popular photo portraiture from the 20s to the 80s, with each video emulating a different decade and a different woman, each at a different age. From a distance, they look like simple photographic portraits—an illusion aided by their frames—until one inspects a bit closer, and the slight motions of the sitters start to hint at something more than their poses. The sitters get bored, frankly, and their fidgeting and noticeable effort to sit still gives them an easy, relatable humanity.

In the upper gallery, three re-enacted self-portraits propose an alternative, removing decisions of pose and composition from the artist’s self-depiction entirely. Wearing places herself (masked) in famous self-portraits by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Diane Arbus, again achieving an eerie visual success. Honestly, I walked here directly from seeing theMapplethorpe self-portrait at Sean Kelly, and I was fooled; Wearing’s good at what she does. They’re not references for the sake of references, either: these are artists whose influence on Wearing is well-known, so her decision to represent herself through them makes sense—they’re better representations of Wearing’s interests and personality than her face could ever be.

This revelation through concealment is echoed by a new set of masked video confessions in the next room, itself shaped like a confessional booth. Participants, who responded to an advertisement to “CONFESS ALL ON CAMERA”, tell stories ranging from the humorous (“Straight from the source”) to the horrifying (one tale ranges from child abuse to murder, and is impossible to forget). Though the confessors are masked, what the masks can’t hide is most telling, and it’s an exceptionally moving piece. Wearing’s worked with video and photo confessions many times before, and I cannot get enough of it.

The catharsis of the confessions is made more concrete by “Bully”, a short video in the back of the first floor, wherein a participant is asked to direct actors on a soundstage in a reenactment of his childhood trauma. When it becomes too real, he opens up in a rage on the actors, who can’t help but look conflicted about the degree of their complicity. It’s raw and hard to watch, but there’s a real sense of relief when the participant’s anger starts to gush out: it’s difficult to argue that art hasn’t, here, truly helped someone.

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