an appreciation and attack on Cindy Sherman's work

By Immi Hill

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #56
The Cindy Sherman SFMOMA exhibition is a chronological march through Sherman’s career. Each room feels like a decade of female archetypes, patriarchal male voyeurism and, of course, Sherman’s face. It’s an unforgettable face and is front and center, always the focal point of the photos. It seems like terribly old news to say, but, here it is: Sherman takes on a wide variety of roles, from Hollywood starlets to aging society women, and she is what you might call a master mimic, a comic of being herself while imitating others. She reverses the question of spectatorship and presentation, not to mention the role of the photographer as artist. Her fame is as a photographer, but what she really does is model. It’s doubtful that she ever actually takes the “real” photograph. As I walked through the exhibition I felt a great deal of unease and by the latter part of the show I was mentally and emotionally screaming for the exit. It was one snapshot after another of flawed femininity and intermittent gross images. As the rooms got smaller, the photographs got bigger and it all left me with an empty cry out for my own womanhood. And it was true, I wasn’t wrong, the photographs definitely got bigger and Sherman’s persona, always present, became more and more ironically vain.

So let’s start with the earliest and smallest:

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #6
Sherman’s early “Film Stills” series is one of her most successful, not only for the quality of the prints, but also for how they don’t demand that we connect with Sherman. She is present, but not omnipresent. Her gaze avoids the camera and the pictures are small enough for us to look with interest. In “Untitled #6” Sherman’s body is sprawled on a bed and one hand holds a brush that rests on her knee. Her other hand rests gently between her face and shoulder and she looks up and away, just barely missing eye contact. Frustrated, she is looking for something else, something better, some kind of escape or so it seems. It’s a powerful photograph and represents Sherman at her best.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #21
In her “Untitled #21” the camera looks up at her. It’s practically right under her feet and we get a pavement eye’s view of what seems like the big city. Sherman again looks away. It seems so strange considering her later work that we would ever have to catch Sherman’s eye. What’s stunning about this photo is that her gaze suggests that there is something more important, something more sustainable and valuable than the camera. Although her presence is shy, Sherman gives these self-portraits a feminist sting, a sense of the great distance between women’s reality and aspirations. In stark contrast to her early work, the recent “Untitled #466” is a good example of what Sherman has become. In what may be the largest photograph of the entire show, Sherman’s gaze is aware and controlled. Importance is no longer in the distance, but right in front of us. Sherman might be playing a comic version of the art matron, but one can’t help but see her bursting out from her own photograph. One wonders if the look of unpleasant authority is a caricature of wealth and privilege or a projection of what she has become.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #466
I find much to admire in these first pieces and it’s amazing how far Sherman’s work has veered from her initial impulses. On a certain level, it’s hard to imagine what went wrong. Yet, from a different perspective I feel that the answer is obvious, that right from the beginning there were two Sherman’s: one, a canny and clever artist capable of creating quite moving work about how women imagine themselves; and two, the other Sherman, demanding authority and control without ever imagining that there is anything as important as her.

In these early “Untitled Stills” she uses a great deal of film noir iconography. The femme fatale, the central symbol of almost all film noirs, is parodied in a number of photographs. The problem with Sherman’s tactic is that her critique of the femme fatale isn’t a critique, but a bland restating of what “noir” already does. Her criticism or satire doesn’t so much expose the limitations of film noir women, as it exposes the limitations of her understanding of those films. Sherman reduces the femme fatale to a static sign, the butt of a joke, where in film noir these roles present women in a multitude of complex and interesting ways: desirable (almost always), smart (often the masterminds of the plot), confident (almost always daring) and uneasy (often keenly aware of the danger in their actions and the roles they play). There are a few things that film noir women aren’t, and that is passive, weak or dependent on men or anybody for that matter. They are players in the game of life and Sherman misses that essential point, reducing the image of the femme fatale to a knowing art world joke.

If you look at Sherman’s noir pictures, the women are so much less than what they are in the films. It’s as if she can’t see them, because she’s so intent on the comic effects of her supposed critique. It feels vain to me and heralds the onset of much of the emptiness of her later work, especially the “Disaster” and “Society” series. When Sherman has respect for her subjects, her work soars. Too often, however, Sherman fails to consider her source material, or maybe one should say her subjects, and her work veers off into unfair and barely considered cheap shots. This is the Sherman that bothers me and even more so because of the other Sherman, the one who possesses such great talent and insight.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #56
Photo Information:

1. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #56, 1980; gelatin silver print; 6 3/8 x 9 7/16"
(16.2 x 24 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977; gelatin silver print; 9 7/16 x 6 1/2"
(24 x 16.5 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

3. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978; gelatin silver print; 7 1/2 x 9 1/2"
(19.1 x 24.1 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #466, 2008; chromogenic color print; 8' 6" x 70"
(259.1 x 177.8 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of Robert B. Menschel in honor of Jerry I. Speyer; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

©CCA Arts Review and Immi Hill

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