Gillian Wearing

Left: Gillian Wearing, Rowena, 2008, acrylic on Masonite in custom frame, ink on paper, and photographs under glass, 31 3/8 x 37 7/8 x 2“. Right: Gillian Wearing, Lulu, 2008, acrylic on Masonite in custom frame, ink on paper, and photographs under glass, 26 3/4 x 17”.

Gillian Wearing came to international prominence as the winner of the Turner Prize in 1997, and also as one of the artists selected for Charles Saatchi’s exhibition “Sensation” that same year at the Royal Academy. Wearing works in a wide range of media, always provocatively plumbing the most ordinary human dramas for their extraordinary, often ironic, content. Her latest exhibition, “Pin-Ups,” is on view at Regen Projects in Los Angeles from July 12 to August 23, 2008.

THE INSPIRATION FOR my latest project came from a statistic released in the UK last year that said that two-thirds of young females would like a career in glamour modeling. I thought that this sounded unrealistic; one of the catalysts for this increase is a model called Jordan who has become a multimillionaire for selling her image (and also for being very frank about her life). This must seem to many people a quick way to get rich. It got me thinking about the reality and fantasy of being a pinup.

I advertised in newspapers and on the Internet for people who would like to be transformed into a pinup or glamour model. I received hundreds of replies, and by looking at the images I selected around thirty to audition. The audition had a twofold reason: to explain the project and to see how genuine the models’ interest was. I only wanted people who were enthusiastic, who had real aspirations.

I wanted the images to reflect a more Hollywood type of glamour as opposed to a “Page Three” style (as in the UK tabloid The Sun). Perhaps this was because I was also thinking of Regen Projects and about having the exhibition in Los Angeles. I took pictures of the models and then Photoshopped them, but I wanted the final product to be a painting, because with painting there is a seductiveness that enhances the transformations of the models; it looks less manufactured than an overworked photograph. Painting isn’t simply a substitute for Photoshop; in the process of Photoshopping an image, it can become quite dead, and painting, through its physical processes, brings the image back to life.

While I love America’s Next Top Model—I’ve watched every episode—it wasn’t an inspiration. And besides Alberto Vargas, I didn’t really look to art history for sources. The pinup has a very particular language, and Vargas essentially invented the proportions: extending the models’ legs and giving them tiny waists and regular features. I did entertain briefly the idea of having them painted in watercolor, as he did, but in the end decided to go with acrylic, as it has a more Photoshopped look; it’s also the medium the painter Jim Burns was most familiar with. The realism of the final image was important. In fact, many who have seen reproductions of the paintings in ads have assumed they were photographs.

It wasn’t easy to find someone to paint the pictures. I wanted to have someone who could do airbrushing. (Vargas used to airbrush photographs before he found a technique for his paintings.) Current technology is all airbrushing on computers, and those who can do great retouching on computers usually can’t do anything with paint. I ended up turning to science-fiction illustration, where airbrushing is still frequently employed. That was where I found Burns, who’s rather well known in that field. His work is completely different from the pinup genre: planets and people in sci-fi costumes and landscapes. But I knew Jim could go to the fantasy level I needed and still make it look realistic. I wanted him to stick very close to the Photoshopped picture; I didn’t want the image to become illustration. The final work has the painting in a frame that you can open like a book to reveal letters from the models explaining why they want to be a pinup, along with snapshots they have taken of themselves, which are placed behind glass. This makes it feel like the archive material is embedded in the work, and that the fantasy and reality are inextricably entwined.