Reflections on Cindy Sherman
By Elyssa Goodman
“She just takes pictures of herself?”
A young chick says to her beau as they stroll behind me. She is wearing a leather jacket, skinny jeans, black boots and hoop earrings. Her hair hangs unnaturally straight on the sides of her head, the result of straightening one too many days in a row. The boy is tall and lanky, wearing a too-big baseball cap embroidered with something hip, the brim pushed up and away from his dark eyes.
I have never seen Cindys so big. Towering up the sharp white walls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the array of 24-foot high Cindy Shermans in a variety of costumes have been printed on immense sheets of PhotoTex adhesive fabric then stuck to the walls of the museum as a mural. It is the first time the mural, created in 2010, has appeared in the United States. It lines the entrance to Cindy Sherman’s career retrospective, on view at MoMA until June 11, 2012.
“I dunno. I guess?” He shrugs.
And, to be fair, upon first glance that is exactly what it looks like. It begs one to ask, what makes you so great, lady?
|From Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980|
While she is perpetually the model, a factor some would say makes her work borderline narcissistic, she is never actually the subject of her photography, which negates the aforementioned criticism. For even when Sherman produces characters who pose in various stages of nudity, the exposed parts are always false ones. What Sherman is showing us in her photographs has nothing to do with her personality, her life, her anything. She is merely showing us the construction of identity as she sees it. The result is an adventure in the grotesquerie of human identity, in which we’re asked to question the choices we make in who we say to the world we are.
While she has no pretense of self-analysis, we never do lose the visual that the created person in the image is a figure she wears upon her body. In each image, whether she is a bedraggled 1960s art-film heroine (a la her majestic Untitled Film Stills series) or a Technicolor clown, we always recognize the tell-tale almond eyes and oval face that lets us know we are looking at a Cindy Sherman photograph. We are not asked to believe her characters are real, but rather that a similar likeness exists in the world. And by constructing each identity and wearing it upon herself, she is almost saying to us, “If I can create you, you must not be as real as you think you are.”
Because nearly all of Sherman’s work involves the portrayal of female tropes, she simultaneously comments on gender identity, calling into question the artifice of female presentation. Heavily lined eyes, skin colored orange to reflect fake tanning, sagging prosthetic breasts with absurdly large, pepperoni-like nipples, corsetry and lingerie of all kinds, high-fashion suiting, and much more all feature in Sherman’s portrayals of various types of women. As if to say, “Look at all the funny things women do and are. See how weird they look? Yet they still do these things, visually altering themselves for approval. Why?” Her goal is less to answer the question than to call it into the collective consciousness—why does the issue exist at all?
It’s clear Sherman takes great risk in exploring these themes decade after decade. Not only could it come across as ‘shtick’ by now, but a typical audience isn’t usually too comfortable with having its morals and identity questioned, certainly not on as regular a basis as Sherman does. Developing her work solidly, though perhaps not purposely, in the height of the second-wave feminist movement, Sherman’s work could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle of feminist art and critique the era produced. Her inquisitiveness and thereby her work in general could have easily gotten stale ages ago, resulting in indifference, but Sherman continued, and still does continue, to find new ways to explore identity and captivate her audience. Risking an oversaturated market of feminist-related work, indifference, and ‘shtick’ criticism, she has by now probably earned herself the equivalent of several Ph.D.s in identity studies. Not to mention a nuanced body of work that continually challenges visual and psychic perception.
Sherman used herself as a vehicle for analysis beginning while she was a student at Buffalo State College in upstate New York. One project, displayed at the MoMA retrospective, was a stop-motion film entitled “Doll Clothes” from 1975. In it, Sherman made a photo cutout of herself into a paper doll and used it to tell a story of identity through the clothing the doll donned. The rest of her career has essentially been a growth and re-imagining of the ideas initially explored there.
Toward the beginning of the exhibition, a frame full of small, hand colored black and white photographs show the artist transitioning from one character—a bespectacled, short-haired woman in a flannel shirt, her face wiped clean—to another—a 1970s cabaret glamazon complete with facial stars, dark lipstick, short, windswept hair and a dark choker—by changing just one facial feature or accessory in each photograph. We see her beginning the search, trying to understand what makes two people so completely different but still so closely linked.
Not long after this particular series was completed, Sherman began working on her aforementioned, groundbreaking work Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), also on display at MoMA. In this black and white film series, Sherman takes on 1960s B-movie and art-film heroines, from the barely-dressed bombshell to the mad housewife to the stern and ambitious career girl. All are artfully orchestrated not just with Sherman’s signature self-styling but with camera angles befitting the project’s title. She is the director of films that do not exist. Each photograph seems vaguely familiar and upon first glance may even invite the viewer to guess what films are being duplicated. In actuality, each image is an amalgam of cultural detritus, a view of women so consistently portrayed that it’s embedded in our visual consciousness and thereby instantly recognizable. Sherman asks us to recognize this, placing us in the image while simultaneously checking us out of it (in some of the photographs we can even see her pressing the remote shutter on her camera).
These are factors that have been present throughout Sherman’s work since the Film Stills series. As Sherman began experimenting with color film and later digital color photography, the ideas have gotten bigger and richer, leading her to experiment with an added layer of reality the vibrancy of color provides. Also on display at MoMA is her ‘Centerfolds’ series from 1981, commissioned by Artforum magazine. ‘Centerfolds’ was completed not long after the Untitled Film Stills and is an all-color series playing with an alternate idea of women as centerfolds in men’s magazines. Instead of oozing sex, excitement, and arousal, Sherman’s centerfolds are pained, nervous, anxious, worried and pensive, all brought more vigorously, and unsettlingly, to life in color.
|From Centerfolds, 1981|
Sherman’s area of artistic study is neverending. While some have attempted such gender and identity studies, there are few, if any, artists who bring the ideas to fruition as clearly as she does. And as long as there are people, there will be people for Sherman to analyze in her work, be they Hollywood wannabes, society matrons, country singers, high fashion glamazons, starlets, clowns, pin-ups, corpses, pop stars, ingénues, or even artists.