When nominated for England's prestigious Turner prize, which she went on to win in 1997, the judges described the work of Wearing as "confessional art in which she persuades her fellow citizens to reveal their most secret thoughts and desires." But confessional is a tag that, like sensationalistic, fits Wearing's work awkwardly or not at all. Interested less in shock value than in the deep value of human pathos, she has since 1993 turned a documentarian's eye on marginal behaviors hidden in plain sight. Obscured truths, unrehearsed outrageousness, private humiliations?these make up the material she plumbs with a lingering, sympathetic eye, the better to spy the lonely drunk at the party, the alienated crasher standing pathetically outside the gate.
In her current exhibition at Gorney Bravin + Lee, Wearing turns her especially laconic camera eye toward a group of inebriated misfits who while away their days in and around her studio, drunk as lords. After spending several years getting to know this particular company of louts, Wearing began filming their antics in front of a plain white backdrop. Prosaically titled Drunk, Wearing's 23-minute, three-screen digital video features unregenerate drunks doing what unregenerate drunks will do: they fight, fall down, get up, fall down again, nod out and, above all, drink themselves into oblivion. With no bar or barstool to speak of and stripped down to their one essential prop?the continually half-empty can or bottle?Wearing's drunks appear as if on a stage, acting out a particularly absurdist pantomime of temperate behavior.
Isolated by their sober background, these subjects stand out like the topers in Diego Velazquez's The Triumph of Bacchus. There's the sallow, longhaired, dirty-faced drunk Wearing repeatedly focuses on, so pissed he can't manage to pull his own t-shirt on; the blond, smiling drunk, so shitfaced he can't wipe the dopey alcohol lobotomy grin off his face; the familiar bickering drunk couple, ratty as a caricature on a bathroom wall, winding each other up until they physically strike out. Seriously damaged and down and out, Wearing's boozy bohos take on the mythic clarity of Shakespearean fools. Cleansed of their natural context but otherwise presented just as they are, her weary subjects become parables of dissolution, extreme allegories for life just before the dropsical, self-sought drop-off.
Though the video's dialogue is purposefully muffled, the stilted, repetitive actions of the artist's boozers speak volumes. In one two-minute scene, a fairly clean breeder stumbles in and out of the camera's frame, his face weirdly impassive as his legs bend and twist like cooked spaghetti. In another, a tiny, longhaired adult urchin sinks into crumpled sleep across all three projection screens, his chest heaving rapidly like a baby sparrow's. Another scene features six drunk ladies who quickly travel the intoxicated distance from best mates to scuffling opponents, catalyzed by the John McCain-like alpha male in the bunch. One particularly pathetic scene features Drunk's sickest bully?a shortish, compact souse in his early 30s?forcing a long, drawn-out, ambiguously homoerotic embrace on another drunk. "I love you. You're my brother," the bully repeats over and over, rubbing the other man's forehead. Love, the affection of a friend, a prelude to a rape: whatever it is the lurching bully has in mind, he stands ready to take it by drunken force.
Also including a set of photo diptychs titled A Woman Called Theresa, Wearing's exhibition turns up the volume on sad, sordid, drunk pathos. Depicting the life of a woman who degrades herself by taking on multiple pub drunks as sex partners, she portrays Theresa and her male slags in excruciating detail. Asking the men to describe Theresa in their own words, Wearing places notes on ruled paper alongside her highly intimate photographs. Complete with glaring grammatical and personal flaws, the men's comments turn out to be particularly painful accompaniments to Theresa's boundlessly masochistic behavior.
Brutally misogynistic and raw as anything Nan Goldin has ever captured, Wearing's photographs of Theresa include a picture of her in bed with a greasy lout named Ben, her head bent back, his right hand wrapped firmly around her neck. Ben's scrawled note reads: "What she is is speed freak evil witch? We done some personal stuff I won't say what as I know it won't sound too good." Theresa's dozing photo with a bloated, red-faced, skivvies-wearing man named Seamus is far less reticent: "From my point of view she is absolutely stupid. She does not respect herself. I mean anyone who sells themselves for a can of beer has got to be stupid? We have sexual relationships as she has a good hart and a good sense of humor. But she is overweight and has no sense of dress. As long as you are with Tresa you are never short of pillow. You can use her breasts."
Oscar Wilde once described the effects of demon absinthe to his hairdresser, a Mrs. Leverson, thus: "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are and that is the most horrible thing in the world!" Applied liberally and in much larger doses to the more pedestrian elixirs favored by Wearing's drunks, Wilde's quote goes a long ways to explaining the lure and curse of the bottle, whether of poisonous wormwood liquor or lager after lager after lager. Drooling intoxication is what those drunks are after and, for the purposes of Wearing's work, she is entirely complicit in getting them there. A detailed and highly compassionate view of human vulnerability is what she is after. Her video and photographic work reveal Wilde's horrible things. That and some of the frightening psychic violence endured inside the deep, ageless alcoholic pit.
"Gillian Wearing," through May 20 at Gorney Bravin + Lee, 534 W. 26th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 352-8372.