[Image: Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]
The exhibition Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery (until 15 September 2019; Vancouver Art Gallery, 26 October 2019-8 March 2020) is a full retrospective of the American photographer’s work from her student pieces to art made this year. It shows Sherman’s work to be tricky, wide-ranging and inscrutable.
Sherman (b. 1954) grew up immersed in the American television and film world of the 1960s and 1970s. The dressing-up that all children do was a rehearsal for a deeper engagement in performance, role-play and drama that underpins her artistic work.
The photography of Sherman can viewed in light of two positions: artist as actress and woman as actress. Sherman studied film alongside fine art. There are head shots, where make-up tests seem to become a series of silent-movie era characters. In other student photographs of her full figure (sometimes maintaining a single pose between shots and sometimes performing a character) Sherman takes the role of an actress trying out characters or as the model for a costumier’s wardrobe tests. It raises the question of what is being and what is acting. How can we meaningfully separate pretending and existing? All pretence involves existing as a fiction and all existence includes an aspect of pretence.
The Cover Girls (1976) series show an original woman’s magazine cover of the period, with Sherman adding her own face. Leers, winks and pouts make the covers impossible, lurid or laughable. (There was quite a bit of laughter – albeit politely subdued – in the galleries.) These covers are like the scenes in horror films where pictures respond to characters, throwing their sanity into question and informing us that they have entered a world of distorted reality. To read these pieces as much more than cocking a snook or poking fun at the mass media would be going too far. The impact is humorous.
The Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) are a lot more serious and ambitious and can be seen as the first mature work of the artist. These black-and-white photographs restage generic scenes from American films, Sherman performs the characters of the ingénue, plucky heroine, jilted girlfriend, maid, wild child, housewife, scheming criminal, American abroad, adventurous teenager, publicity-shy film star, budding starlet, preening teen, middle-aged lush, big-city hooker and soon-to-be murder victim.
[Image: Untitled Film Still #15 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]
She uses make-up, costumes, mise en scenes, cinematography and her abilities as an actress to create persuasive photographs that successfully pastiches American movies. She also enjoys horror movies, perhaps leading to the prevalence of images of the victim in her photographs.
The Color Studies and Pink Robes of 1981-2 provide a warm and intimate counterpoint to these series, moving into colour and showing Sherman in her least overtly artificial of appearances. We should not be deceived into thinking these present emotional candour but they function like that when seen as part of her oeuvre as a whole. They are least intellectually and emotionally demanding of Sherman’s work (including the humorous work) and show Sherman working like a painter, not afraid to indulge in the pleasure of colour and texture. The violet tints of the Color Studies and the warm pink and texture of the thick robe in the Pink Robes are the work of a sensual artist. It is a shame that we have not seen more photographs along these lines. However, this line inevitably leads to exploration of non-human subjects and would take Sherman away from her prime modus operandi.
Later Sherman would expand her skills and take her creativity to new extremes with a series of History Portraits (1988-90) re-stages images of women and men from classic paintings. With prosthetics, props and heavy make-up she reaches heights of artificiality and implausibility to recreate paintings. Body casts and medical-training prosthetics augment and contrast with her own body. These results are never convincing but toy with mimicry and the grotesque, evoking the uncanny. She invites us to guess how the photographer has deployed falsehoods in order to generate an image that is unnatural. It toys with the ideas of women as users of cosmetics to hide themselves and enhance their appearance – for purposes of convention, disguise, seduction, signalling, vanity and self-deceit. The National Portrait Gallery has loaned Ingres’s Mme Moitessier, one of his grand portraits of society ladies as Roman matrons. This was a source for one of Sherman’s history portraits, which is displayed nearby.
In three sequences of erotic (or perhaps we should say anti-erotic) photography from the 1990s, Sherman creates artificial hells. These are landscapes of sex toys and medical prosthetics, which address attitudes towards pornography and obscenity in art, especially as a protest against the political suppression of nudity in the publicly-funded arts of the 1980s and 1990s. The Society Portraits (2008) are painfully acute reinterpretations of the high-society photographs found in magazines, with their ostentatious settings, arch poses, heavy make-up and stilted positions.
The deliberate confusions of stylistic registers, emotional tones and semiotic languages makes individual photographs more interesting to read and harder to interpret in the absence of an overarching expressed authorial intention. Sherman has said that concerns about the “male gaze” are peripheral to her as a maker. In Sherman’s performances she makes an analogy between herself as an artist engaged in a project and a woman who habitually makes herself up to face the world. She has spoken about when she arrived in New York City she adopted a street persona to escape unwanted attention and to shield herself. Both situations of artist and woman involve artifice and presentation. One could say that Sherman implies the woman is working in the same field as the painter and cinematographer in the business of extreme artificiality to generate a response from viewers. Yet Sherman goes beyond this in late works, where she becomes a clown, a grotesque, a woman deformed by cosmetic surgery, the victim of a birth defect or the survivor of a life-changing injury. Here horror and cosmetic transformation become wedded.
The range of tones is wide – from comic to serious, even tragic. Approaches likewise vary from candid to highly staged. Sources include movies, television and photography of all types. Characters range through all classes and include the fantastical. More subtle transformations make figures that are androgynous or fantastical (Fairy Tales (1985)). Movie-quality prosthetics make Sherman elderly or young, almost unrecognisable, yet as we know she is the author and only living subject of her photographs, we understand she must be the actress in her tableaux. Francesca Woodman could tease the audience by using models hiding their faces behind photographs of her face. The selection of models of similar appearance to her own figure generated simulacra of the artist, which worked because she was so frequently subject of her own photographs that she knew viewers would be familiar with her face and figure. Sherman does the reverse: always depicting herself but never revealing herself. “The end product of my procedure is not about anything. It’s a picture of something entirely of itself – not of me.”[vii] Sherman evades the attachment of an agenda to her photographs.
he assumption that Sherman is the subject of all photographs is proved false by the development of works comprising of props assembled to form personages. In some of these works – a few them extreme close-ups – we are confronted by characters who are entirely artificial. These are the cousins of special-effects for movies or equivalents of the effects of reconstructive surgery. Some become as lush and involved in image creation as any still-life painter (Untitled # 324 (1996)).
Apart from some of the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman has worked alone.[ix] Most of the work is done in her New York studio, which functions as a film studio does, with various cameras and lights, alongside a vast array of props and costumes. Rear projects have also been used extensively. This exhibition includes one room which reproduces at life size her studio and bookshelves.
The Chanel Series (2010-2) and Murals (2010) put full-figure characters in landscapes settings. These seem to indicate an urge to tackle something other – the wildness, the expanses of the American landscape, the delights of living things for – with the exception of herself – almost everything Sherman has depicted is non-living. It is quite something to be a photographer and at the same time refuse so much – all that is candid and unstaged, the living world of flora and fauna, the drama of landscape, the effects of nature and weather, the microscopic and macroscopic. Sherman’s lifetime of work has been – in its way – as limited as that of Mondrian or Rothko.
This exhibition is very rewarding and a fascinating exhibition of a serious artist. Highly recommended.
Cindy Sherman is at the National Portrait Gallery from 27 June to 15 September 2019.
© 2019 Alexander Adams
To view my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art