an attempt to think about Cindy Sherman's brilliance and failures

By Brianna Kalajian

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #216
I am bewildered by Cindy Sherman or as the ads for SFMOMA proudly trumpet, “one of the most influential photographers of our time.” Sherman has been the subject, or, more accurately, the focal point of her large and growing body of work. She has cornered the market on self-portraiture and has become a strange merging of both artist and brand, one of the most recognizable figures in contemporary art. Her work has been building on itself from the beginning, but she has gone through some radical shifts in approach. The layout and chronology of the show helps us see how Sherman has always been essentially Sherman, but also how she has changed to become possibly more of Sherman the personality and less of Sherman the artist. It’s fascinating to see how the “Film Stills” series fro the late 70’s and 80’s inform and contrast with her later work, especially the series “Society” (2008), where she depicts and satirizes high society art matrons, sorry patrons, in a variety of power poses. Although thirty years separates these two series, the contrast illuminates some of the most striking issues about Sherman’s fame and work. This exhibition was an incredible opportunity to see the breadth and depth of Sherman’s approach and I should say, changing approach to the reflected self.

So, let’s begin with Sherman’s breakthrough photographs from the late 1970’s, the delightful series, “Film Stills.” It is a wonderful example of how Sherman can use the mundane as a rich source of the imagination and unconscious. Here, in these many beautiful black-and-white, gelatin-silver prints, Sherman enthusiastically takes on the personae of everyday women. Dressed as various female archetypes and posed in distinct locales, she radiates a young, attractive and glowing energy. You feel her engagement with each archetypal identity she adopts. Her inspiration for this work comes from Hollywood films from the 50’s and early 60’s.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #52
In “Untitled Still, #52”(1979), Sherman lies alone on a bed, wearing a white silk slip and clutching at her pillow. Her gaze is directed off to the side, looking distraught as if she is in deep contemplation. Your mind runs wild. Did something just happen to her or is something about to happen? We don’t know and that’s what so haunting about the photograph—whatever happened or will happen will remain a mystery. It’s out of the sight of the camera and the picture’s frame and that forces us into the narrative. Was there a sexual confrontation: was it experienced or imagined, it’s hard to know. Well, of course, it’s all imagined, but the force of the image pulls us from the fiction of the photograph and into the reality of the situation. We can even take it a step further and say that this picture is taken from a man’s perspective and possibly even shot by a man. We don’t know who snapped the actual photo, although it is obviously not Sherman, the author of this strange and tricky work of art. This is Sherman at her best, forcing the viewer to engage, wonder and sympathize with what they see.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #21
An equally strong picture from the same series is “Untitled, #21” (1978) and depicts Sherman dressed in a sophisticated suit along with a hat that sits atop her short blonde hair. Her upper body is juxtaposed against a backdrop of high-rise buildings. Her gaze is directed away from the viewer while she holds a daring and analytical expression on her face. She is looking at something that strikes her interest and is taking it in with a great deal of seriousness. Since the “Film Stills” were produced in the late 70’s, but were inspired by women during the 50’s and 60’s, these images evoke a cultural shift that challenged “ideal” representations of women. The viewer is glancing up at her from a low vantage point, as the backdrop extends to the height and prevailing presence of the skyscrapers. Sherman is framed and composed in a powerful and refined manner, appearing to be somewhat masculine. It is a stunning image of women on the brink of a new era, one that gingerly places them outside of confining and traditional domestic settings. Sherman uses the romantic allure of Hollywood films to convey a huge change in the cultural landscape and even today, after at least three more successive waves of feminism her insights into female psychology still hold a potent charge.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #96
Sherman’s work in the early 1980’s continued to address iconic representations of women. Inspired by the centerfold format of pornographic magazines, she introduces color, bright lights and high contrast to her photographs. This technical achievement allows her to appropriate the energy of pornography and use it for completely different means. Her “characters” for the “Centerfolds” series are not the overtly sexual cartoons of the 1960’s Playboy aesthetic, but girl-next-door types who have just a whiff of sexual ambiguity. In “Untitled #96” (1981), her hair is cropped, she wears little makeup and sports a plaid skirt reminiscent of Catholic schools. She is lying on a tiled floor with a piece of paper in her hand—perhaps it is her report card. It is hard to make out what is on the paper but she is obviously thinking about something. You can feel an incredible amount of anxiety here and a great deal of it comes from the contrast between the content and Sherman’s use of pornographic aesthetics. Are we meant to desire this young woman in the same way we would Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield (what a perfect last name)? It’s an open question and part of what makes this series so successful.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled 155
By the late 1980’s Sherman’s work becomes more obscure and abstract. Her “Disasters” series is a primal jump into the grotesque and the horrific. Sherman uses various props such as prosthetics, dirt and food in order to create scenes that are clearly meant to disgust and revolt. It seems a conscious rebuke to all those fans and critics who thought of her as the cute “it girl” of contemporary art. Sherman is not present, or, more accurately, the focal point of most of this series. What we see are staged crime scenes, but, unlike Law and Order, the detectives aren’t rushing out to solve the crime and put the world back together. These are scenes that are meant to last. This series is shockingly bizarre and is successful in triggering a response, but the desire for that response seems more about making a statement than an artistic vision. Furthermore, what that statement represents is unclear and excessive. I don’t mean to be rude or deliberately dismissive, but what this series gains in impact, it loses in sense and formal rigor. In the end, I don’t think, “Yes, Cindy Sherman, you’re right, the world is ugly,” but just, “this is ridiculous."

Sherman might counter, “Yes, Brianna, and have you seen my “Clown” series? Or to quote from the real Sherman: “I came to clowns to show the complex emotional abysses of a painted smile.” This series, produced between 2003 and 2004, depicts various colorful clowns in front of tasteless, tacky, photo-shopped backdrops. Here, she uses digital technology to manipulate her subjects in an attempt to unify the subject and the background, or at least that’s what it seems. In “Untitled #424,” Sherman is dressed as a clown wearing a red fluffy scarf, a balding curly Afro and heavy makeup around her eyes. Her mouth is open revealing her yellow buckteeth that are biting down on her big and awkward red lips. Her gaze is glancing up and she has a slight grin on her face. Behind her is an angled beam of color that forms a two-dimensional background. The only relationships between the subject and the background are the common shades of colors. It looks like a creepy school picture from the late nineties and early two thousands—you can just sense the neon lights illuminating the whole grisly scene.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #424
These are cheesy and unattractive photographs. I guess that’s what most people would say about clowns, but when looking at Sherman’s work it seems more of a cliché than an insight. Her interest in questioning a genuine smile is certainly valid, but this concept is a vague jump from her earlier work that had such a specificity of feeling and place. Here, everything is disconnected and abstract and the work holds no real significant presence. These photos are merely tasteless, an idea about what clowning might be. Everything that is strong about the early work is lost here. The images are flat and remain shallow, there is no narrative, only smiles and the gender neutrality of the clowns places them outside of any known or understood societal construct. You look at these pictures for a few seconds and move to the next.

In her “Society” series (2008), Sherman takes on the wealthy women of society. They are a recognizable type, the kind of woman who is on the board of SFMOMA. This series comes approximately thirty years after the “Film Stills” and as I alluded to in the beginning of this essay it’s interesting to compare the two series. In many ways it is a return to form and Sherman resurrects some of her earlier and more successful approaches. Untitled #468 (2008) depicts an older woman folding her arms with an unsettling expression on her face. She is composed similarly to “Untitled #21” (1978), the picture of the young woman and the skyscrapers. In this later piece, what’s clearly comic is Sherman’s slap-dash critique of superiority, especially wealthy, female, on the verge of elderly superiority and how it oozes from every aspect of this woman’s appearance. Still, there’s something missing. The picture is more of a SNL quick sketch than an investigation of a person and what we miss from the earlier pictures is the sense of presence and vitality. Even though this older woman addresses the camera directly, she is disproportionate to the background. Everything is a construction, both Sherman’s use of digital manipulation and her view of these women. We realize that she has seen these women, but has no relationship with them and, in fact, does not understand them at all. One could argue that they are way more beautiful, horrible and tragic than any of the easy satire we get here.

In the “Film Stills” series, Sherman represented various everyday women flawlessly because she was at the time one herself. She didn’t have to embody a “complete” fictional character. In her later work Sherman disguises herself, wearing costumes and in the “Society” series wearing the painted faces of older women who might as well be clowns. In every picture, Sherman poses them in a stiff and static manner that seems to have nothing to do with older, aching bones, and more to do with a limited sense of who these women are. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have dressed up as these women, but rather I’d like to see her dig beneath the costumes and engage with them and their surroundings. “Untitled #469” (2008) is a good example of how Sherman limits her scope and you can see it in how her use of foreground and background is so much less effective than in the “Film Still” series. In “#469” we’re again confronted with an elegant older woman. She wears a green dress and a slight smirk that could smother a puppy. She is digitally cropped and framed, hovering and above the grounds like a giant bust of a statue—I guess that’s a pun. Behind her is a backdrop of a fanciful green forest, but she is not part of it. It’s not hard to imagine that she doesn’t even know that it’s there. Everything is an idea and nothing is lived. This is clearly Sherman’s representation of the world, but we might ask of what world? When has this ever existed? It just feels extraneous.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #474
Are these women more or less significant than the young Sherman? Is it because of their age and appearances that we find these images less successful? This is an important point to address, but in the end the issue feels aesthetic, that Sherman is just not interested in these women and that because of that she doesn’t fully engage as an artist. You can just feel it in the haphazard technique. The execution is simply not as good or inspired as the “Films Stills” and “Centerfolds” series. The viewer can see such distinctions by first noticing that the gaze has changed in her later work. The women are all looking at the camera rather than off to the side, and the result is we lose the ability to create or engage with any kind of narrative. The subjects are also less occupied with their environments so we lose the beautiful interaction and composition between subject and setting. Sherman is surely a great and important photographer, but often she seems at odds with herself and what she chooses to represent. I find her work bewildering, but maybe that’s a product of Sherman’s own bewilderment and her search for true, engaging and meaningful subjects.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #463

Photo Information:

1. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #216, 1989; chromogenic color print; 7' 3 1/8" x 56 1/8"
(221.3 x 142.5 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #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

3. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96, 1981; chromogenic color print; 24 x 47 15/16"
(61 x 121.9 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Carl D. Lobell; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #155, 1985; chromogenic color print; 6' 1/2" x 49 1/4"
(184.2 x 125.1 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

5. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #474, 2008; chromogenic color print; 7 63/4" x 60"
(230.5 x 152.4 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor, Michael Lynne, Charles Heilbronn, and the Carol and David Appel Family Fund; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

6. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #463, 2007-08; chromogenic color print; 68 5/8 x 6"
(174.2 x 182.9 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

©CCA Arts Review and Brianna Kalajian

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