a hard look at Cindy Sherman's "Disaster" series

By Kaitlin Hooper

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #175
If you are even vaguely familiar with the contemporary art world you will have seen Cindy Sherman’s face, albeit in a variety of guises. She often dresses up as a female archetype of some kind and then playfully shows us the limitations of that very archetype. Sherman has created a large body of work in which she is the principal subject of her photographs, acting as the model and medium of her own private, self-contained world. By placing her face front and center, she has become both artist and brand and it is the “Cindy Sherman” formula for which she has become famous. It kind of boils down to this: Cindy Sherman plays Cindy Sherman playing someone else and we’re comforted, because we always know it’s Cindy Sherman, even though, of course, it’s not.

SFMOMA’s recent Sherman exhibit is a mid-career show that features a stunning amount of work. It’s staged in multiple rooms and each room represents a different series of photographs. The effect is overwhelming. Everywhere you look there’s Cindy Sherman and everything looks, well, pretty much the same. Once an artist becomes a brand, it’s hard to break free from that identity and it also makes it difficult for an audience to see that artist in any other way. Set within all these rooms of multiplying Shermans is one room that features a collection of work unlike anything else on display, true outliers to the Cindy Sherman brand. The “Disaster” series (1986-92) is a set of untitled photographs that represent her reaction to the AIDS epidemic. These pictures are graphic in a way that makes her other work look merely cute. They’re full of gruesome imagery that Sherman achieves with a variety of “uncomfortable” props. If most of Sherman’s work is designed to make you feel comfortable with looking at Cindy, then these works are so far off brand that you kind of wish the old Sherman would come back and say it’s all okay.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #175
The most noticeable aspect in this series is that Sherman seems to be absent in nearly every photograph. There are only three pictures that contain glimpses of her and they show her only as a secondary element; she is so removed from the photos that she is just atmosphere within the composition. In Shermanʼs other work she is the focal point and you are aware that she is always in the process of inhabiting the body of the person she is playing. Her presentation of these characters is always literal, and she pays close attention to the details of imitation and parody. In the “Disaster” series Sherman the model becomes an abstraction, as if the literal “Cindy Sherman” got lost in the noise of AIDS.

Of course, given the subject matter it would hard to be literal. If she had employed her usual method, Sherman would have had to portray dying AIDS patients. Sherman could have taken this approach and it was obviously well within her means to do that. The only problem is that it feels tasteless and I’m sure she understood that. The politics and culture of the disease obviously forced Sherman, at least at that moment in her career, to become a different artist. Instead of possessing a character, her normal mode of operation, in the “Disaster” series, she turns herself inside out and forces the viewer to see the disease as a terrifying manifestation of her imagination. In the end what she gives us is a shattered or absent version of herself. You can feel Sherman demanding a completely different level of response to her work and that need comes from a real compassion for the suffering. The photos are shocking, but not exploitive. They were produced at a cultural moment when the normal rules for living and representing life were turned upside down and Sherman negotiates those turns with great force and real anguish.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #173
The earliest photo of the series is “Untitled #173” and is one of the three pictures where Sherman’s face is present. Most of the picture is in shadow and the highlights are limited but present enough to keep the photograph from being completely black and brown. The viewer sees an image of a mound of dirt covered with large insects, mainly flies, and tufts of hair, which looks to have been recently pulled from some sort of animal. The fur still has skin and blood attached to it. At the very top of the photograph, in the background behind this mound of dirt, lies Sherman. All that is seen is her head at the top left corner turned slightly into the ground, while the rest of her body lies across the entirety of the top of the frame mostly cropped out of view. Her eyes are open but dull and she seems to be staring at the dirt pile. We are left to wonder whether this woman is dead or alive. This is not a question that you would ask of any other series of Sherman photographs, especially the “Centerfold” series that directly precedes these pictures, which are always vibrantly alive in both form and in the people depicted.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #155
This photograph and two from the following year are the only ones where you can even recognize Sherman. “Untitled #175” (1987) shows an array of decadent treats crumbled and smashed alongside a pile of vomit, lying next to a pair of sunglasses with Shermanʼs face reflected in the lens. From the same year, “Untitled #155” shows a woman bent over, her skirt raised up so that her ass is in full view, spotted with pimples and boils. In the top right corner we see Shermanʼs face, slightly distorted by a lack of focus, gazing back at this scene of carnage. It’s horrible, but effective.

Obviously something happened to Sherman’s imagination during the height of the AIDS crisis, which was profound enough to transform her creative method. She does return to the Cindy Sherman brand, but after this series I’m not sure she ever fully recovered. Did she become a better or worse artist? That’s a difficult question and one that I’m not sure that I can answer. How she’s moved past this series and the work that she is creating to this day leads me to the conclusion that at the very least she has become a different artist; different from the early Sherman; different from the Sherman who became famous; and different from the Sherman who created these grotesque images. Whatever it did, it made her evolve and gave us a few more Shermans to look at.

©Cindy Sherman/Untitled #264
Photo Information:

1. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #175, 1987; chromogenic color print; 46 7/8 x 71 1/2"
(119.1 x 181.6 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

2. 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

3. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #264, 1992; chromogenic color print; 50 x 6' 3"
(127 x 190.5 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

©CCA Arts Review and Kaitlin Hooper

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