Gillian Wearing: Pin-Ups/ Family History
The first representation, according to the Bible, was affirmed by its appearance—God looked at the man He made in His own image, and said it was “very good.”1 The first subject was thus an object, subject to an objective standard of being. This looping fusion of subject and object is also the animus of art, an animating spirit that Adorno said was “bound up with, performed, and mediated by,” all artwork.2 As animus is one definition of genius, Gillian Wearing’s Pin-Ups project is genius.
The project features seven paintings framed in pale wood. The paintings are kitsch, glamour portraits of pin-up subjects based on Photoshopped photographs. Each frame proves to be a box, opened with white cotton gloves to reveal a handwritten letter and several small, snapshot self-portraits of the person painted. The project began when Wearing posted an online call for people to apply to become a glamour model. From these written applications, Wearing selected individuals to be auditioned. In the audition, Wearing explained the project and probed the applicant’s interest, looking for those “who were enthusiastic, who had real aspirations.” She picked five women and two men, who then worked with science-fiction-book-cover artist Jim Burns to create the final look of their portraits. Wearing has said that she wanted to create paintings, not photos, images, or illustrations, because “with painting there is a seductiveness that enhances the transformations of the models.” She also wanted the paintings airbrushed and done in acrylic “as it has a more Photoshopped look.” Paradoxically, she notes: “The realism of the final image was important.”3
The genius of Pin-Ups is that there is no contradiction—the project is a perfect argument. There is the art object, whose subject is an objectified image of itself as subject. There is the subject, whose object is a subjectified image of itself as object. The subject is literally contextualized by his/her handwritten application to Wearing; the object literally objectified by the fabrication of an image, not an illustration. Illustration denotes, image connotes. In 1964, when Barthes wrote his pivotal essay that differentiated between connotation and denotation, photographs were considered representational, paintings illusionary. Barthes was arguing for reading photos critically, a critical chore we now take for granted. In the age of Photoshop, photos contain arguably less truth-quotient than paintings, and paintings have arguably more validity by way of overt artifice—a painting is a painting. Thus, the photo acts as an illustration, denoting the properties of the thing represented, while a painted image has multiple connotations, including the literary. In Wearing’s project, the original snapshots are illustrations of the subject’s cellulite-rich and canker-sored self. The final paintings are subjectively and objectively perfected images of a firm, unblemished “itself,” just as man made God in his own airbrushed image. This new subject/object, this “sobject,” is man’s own imago: the man created of man by man. God is dead, but we have Wearing.
In this sense, Pin-Ups is Wearing’s post-Lacanian answer to the Freudian riposte of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). Duchamp’s box was glass, his bride and her bachelors tinny tinker-toys, frozen in frustration of the many men for the one true Woman. Wearing’s men and women are fully realized because they are fully fantasized: they contain their own happy self-recognition, fulfilling that desire which is itself the cause of desire. The promise and problem of a century’s worth of conceptual art is here in a nutshell: whether it is nobler to suffer the nothing than to not suffer suffering at all. Duchamp allegorically mechanized desire’s grinding and thwarted appetites, including the cracked box they came in; Wearing falsifies flesh as flesh is really falsified—plumped and plucked and Photoshopped, primped for the short sale. There is no body that cannot be altered for commodification, and no body that cannot be commodified.4 Duchamp’s Snow White bride was a wanker’s nightmare and delight; Wearing’s imagos are denuded semi-nudes, erotic as a Bacardi ad. The only boner here is a self-reflective joke, the gag of the self-made man.
- King James Bible Genesis 1:26, 1:31.↵
- Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). 166.↵
- “Gillian Wearing.” Artforum, July, 2008.↵
- As Slavoj Zizek has written, “the fundamental lesson of globalisation is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations….” (On Violence [New York: Picador, 2008], 79.) This was demonstrated very neatly when I went to Beijing and Shanghai in June 2008: the Nike billboards there portrayed the Chinese Olympic athlete as a pictoral composite of thousands of ordinary Chinese—out of many, one. Meanwhile, in the United States, Nike’s “Beijing” ads were monument-sized portraits of the individual athlete, doggedly training (and winning) alone—out of many, one.↵