"I'm always trying to find ways of discovering new things about people, and in the process discover more about myself."6
Gillian Wearing, Self Portrait as My Uncle Bryan Gregory, 2003
Gillian Wearing's (b. Birmingham, United Kingdom, 1963-) artistic territory is documentary portraiture. Her works explore the differences between public and private life, the individual and society, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and fiction and fact.7 She was part of the Young British Artists, a group that achieved international attention for their often-sensational and shocking creations.
Wearing's videos and photographs cover a wide variety of people and expose the complexities of human relationships. Some of her works focus on her family and friends, others on strangers—men, women and children of the streets; victims of abuse; and alcoholics or drug addicts. In her family artworks, Wearing investigates the dynamics between relatives. "I was interested in the idea of being genetically connected to someone but being very different. There is something of me, literally, in all those people—we are connected, but we are each very different,"8 she has said.
Self Portrait as My Uncle Bryan Gregory (2003) is part of the photographic series Album. Album consists of seven autobiographical photographs in which the artist reconstructed old family snapshots by superimposing masks that she creates of her grandfather, mother, father, uncle, and brother as young adults or adolescents onto her own face. Then she took a picture of herself wearing the mask. To depict her characters, she employed the mask and costumes, makeup, props, and lighting. She collaborated with a gifted team who cast, sculpted, painted, and even applied hair to the masks.
Wearing begins the process of creating a mask by making a detailed clay model that transforms a two-dimensional photograph into a three-dimensional mask. With a team of assistants, a prosthetic silicon mask is built that the artist inhabits. It is an expensive process since each mask costs more than €11,600 to produce, and forty rolls of film are required to capture the perfect image of Wearing inside it.9
6. Consky, Lauren, "Gillian Wearing's Facial Features," The McGill Tribune, Tuesday, March 18, 2003
7. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Collection Online: Gillian Wearing
8. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Arts Curriculum Online: Gillian Wearing, Trauma and the Uncanny, (Quoted in Jennifer Bayles, "Acquisitions: Gillian Wearing," Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, [accessed January 25, 2010].)
9. Matt Lippiatt, "Keeping it in the Family: Gillian Wearing interview," The Times, UK, October 3, 2006
- Look carefully at this photo. What do you notice?
- The title of this work is Self Portrait as My Uncle Bryan Gregory. Why do you think the artist calls this a self-portrait? How could that be the case? In what ways are you similar to your family members? In what ways are you unique?
- Explain to the class that the artist reconstructed old family snapshots by recreating a lifelike mask of the members of her family and even herself as a teenager or as a toddler. Tell them that to depict her characters she employs costumes, makeup, props, lighting, and the very special masks. Have students look at the image again and discuss further. If they look very closely they will see that the artist’s eyes are the evidence of her inside the mask. How does this make you feel? What is your reaction to the work? Does knowing the process and that Gillian Wearing is behind the mask change your opinion of this photograph?
- Gillian Wearing states that people’s expressions and posture reveal their personality and their innermost secrets. By looking at Self Portrait as My Uncle Bryan Gregory, what are some of the characteristics that this portrait suggests about him? Write a short “character description” that includes what you imagine his family, hobbies, and job might be.
- Explore Wearing’s concept of melding the features of two people into one by using collage. First, take a digital face-front photo or photocopy of each student enlarged onto an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page. Have students choose someone they would like to be “merged” with such as a historical figure, a contemporary leader, a person in the news, or a classmate, depending on the project’s relationship to the curriculum. Next, have students find an image of the person they are researching either online or from a book that can be scanned or photocopied to fit on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page. Make several copies of both faces. Have them combine the features from both faces to create a person with aspects of each. Once the new portrait collage is completed, write a short biography that combines the student’s traits with those of the person they have researched.