acrylic on masonite in custom frame; ink on paper, photographs under glass
31 3/8 x 37 7/8 x 2 inches (79.7 x 96.2 x 5.1 cm)
31 3/8 x 75 7/8 x 1 inches (79.7 x 192.7 x 2.5 cm) - open
courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, CA
photo by Joshua White
Gillian Wearing: Pin Ups
12 July through 23 August 2008Regen Projects
, West Hollywood
Gillian Wearing’s new mixed media series Pin Ups
elicit a conflicting range of emotions—and formal engagements. As to the latter, Wearing employs an illustrationist painter with air-brushing skills she herself does not possess, the better to see her fantasy-themed vision realized, and includes the original source materials documenting the search for her subjects in a sort of hidden cabinet inside the boxed frame, behind the paintings. This device is ingenious, a bit too cute, and also quite effective in promoting a true understanding of the paintings’ meanings. The shame of it is that the casual viewer will likely not have the chance to view those materials, as they are not visible without permission to open the frames, and the painted portraits lose a considerable level of success without the context they provide. As to the former, that is, the emotional impact of the images, more on that below. First an explanation of the above-referenced subject search in an attempt to get at the all-important evolution of the portraits in context.
Wearing says that, inspired by a public opinion survey showing that nearly two-thirds of young women in the UK aspired to careers as professional models, she undertook to investigate what lay behind the pervasiveness and absurdly unrealistic desires behind that trend. More than the hoop dreams of teenagers, Wearing sensed that a more profound meditation on the pas de deux
between identity and fantasy, especially with the encouragement of reality television, was possible by following this thread; the more so given her previous interest in media constructions of identity, public exposure of private lives and the transformative power of the camera. So she advertised in classifieds, narrowed the hundreds of respondents down to 30 and interviewed them. Inside those frame boxes are the hand-written letters from and Polaroid snapshots of the applicants she chose to be painted. Wearing didn’t want souped-up manipulated photographs as the end result, though that became a step in the process, she wanted the sensuality of painted surfaces and the ways in which artifice seems less obvious in context of stylized hyper-realist figurative painting, and that’s what Burns—the painter she hired—is good at, a science fiction painter who’s accustomed to making the fantastical look real. And so waitress from Brixton became Ramos and Vargas beauties, for our pleasure as well as their own.
Rowena, Ben, Laura—all the works are simply titled with the subjects’ first names, and they each strike a pose with such enthusiasm, such an embrace of the exaggerated archetype of the glamour look—this aided by the pronounced halo effect, the near and sometimes outright nudity of stylized, perfected bodies, the rich alabaster or mahogany of the skin, the pertness and delicate pink of nipples, the stretch of sateen panties across pelvic bones, the wispy mass of coiffed hair, and the tiny shadow of belly buttons. Each one is different and the same, which at some level is what modeling is all about; but as with so much art, it’s the inescapable personal heartache (of what is on the inside of the frame, in the letters and self-portraits, the photographs and the stories), that turns the mannequins back into human beings. They do share broad outlines of experience, like being fat, ugly and teased as adolescents, or suffering some debilitating tragedy that held them back, and of course the flushed desire to see themselves in pictures. The people in the paintings look better than ever although still nowhere near what they would need to succeed as real models, however the confidence of their poses juxtaposed with their distorted images of themselves is genuinely moving. Is feeling pity condescension, or a defense mechanism that kicks in as we come to contemplate our own deficiencies and the obstacles our circumstances present to our dreams?
Shana Nys Dambrot
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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