Cindy Sherman’s importance as a contemporary artist cannot be overstated. According to artfacts.net, an admittedly subjective website dedicated to tracking artist rankings worldwide, Sherman comes in at number 8 with Warhol and Picasso holding the number 1 and 2 spots. After Rhein II, 1999 by Andreas Gursky, Sherman’s Untitled #96, 1981, was the second most expensive photograph ever sold. Suffice it to say Sherman’s place in the canon was something we simply accepted as doctrine without giving it much thought – that is until we caught her first retrospective in 14 years at SFMoMA. The exhibition, which started at MoMA in New York and has since moved on to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is an overwhelming testament to Sherman’s inventive and perceptive practice which has, over more than thirty years, provocatively mirrored and challenged cultural mores. Tracing her career from the mid-1970s to the present, the retrospective comprises some 160 works and is organized thematically to examine some of the issues that she has consistently probed in her work including artifice; cinema and performance; horror and the grotesque; gender and class identity; and myth, carnival and fairy tales. Gathered together, her smaller, early experimental works through to her large, late grotesque masterpieces collectively call into question the issues central to photography – the nature of representation, the constructed nature of photography and identity, the command of the gaze – and the power of her multi-layered oeuvre cannot be denied.
Combining pop culture with conceptual concerns, Sherman is, of course, best known for her portraits in which she deftly turns the lens on herself and uncannily assumes a startling range of guises. As director, makeup artist, hair stylist, costumer and model, Sherman controls every aspect of the image she creates – she is the ultimate auteur. In manipulating her identity over the course of a more than thirty year career she has culled images from everything around us – TV, movies, fashion spreads, and art history – transforming herself into blonde bombshell, deranged clown, Renaissance Madonna and aging society maven, redefining the creative possibilities of photography as a channel through which to create, rather than merely depict. Sherman is the consummate actress: her convincing portrayal is key to the success of her work and viewing the astonishing array of identities she adopts it’s difficult to believe it is Sherman herself in all those pictures. She proves identity to be fluid and malleable. Perhaps our favourite work in the exhibition, Untitled #479, 1975, is one of the earliest and a harbinger of things to come. In a series of small, 23 hand-coloured silver gelatin prints displayed in three rows, Sherman magically morphs from a bookish, androgynous sourpuss into a glamorous, cigarette-smoking, vixen – she is a chameleon transforming right before our very eyes.
Much has been written about the groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills and with good reason. In these 70 photographs Sherman created from 1977 to 1980, she appears in black and white images that recall scenes from 1950s and 60s Hollywood, art-house and noir films. We had, of course, seen parts of this series in various exhibitions but to see all 70 together is a powerful experience. Visitors were captivated by this encyclopedic group of images which feel strangely familiar and capture the full gamut of female film clichés that exist to this day, reducing women to vamps, housewives, career gals, bombshells, etc. Today, more than thirty years after their creation, the images are as compelling as ever.
Her 1981 series of centrefolds, originally commissioned by Artforum magazine, feature women in different emotional states – cowering in bed, lying on the floor exposed, tense with fear – very much vulnerable to the viewer’s gaze. Playing with stereotypes of pin-up girls from men’s erotic magazines, these anxiety-inducing images make the audience uncomfortably aware of their role in looking, as if they are trespassing upon a private moment. In 2008, Sherman created a group of portraits in which she appears as maturing socialites, appropriately presented in monumental gilded frames. These women grasp at the straws of their youth through surgical interventions and the overzealous use of makeup. Photographed in their finest garb, dripping in jewels and often surrounded by splendour, their hard exteriors mask fragile interiors – Sherman nails this portrayal of women afraid of aging in a society that condemns it. In her recent large-scale murals that confronted us upon entering the exhibition space, Sherman relies on digital processing to transform her appearance – the eclectic mix of characters are placed against decorative black and white landscapes. The looming figures are completely out of place in their natural surrounds those of a Watteau fête galante painting gone terribly wrong.
Many of Sherman’s photographs are purposefully provocative featuring an ageing woman’s naked, sagging breasts, for example, or dolls and prosthetics in overly sexual positions, recalling the work of Hans Bellmer. These images are deliberately unappealing –repulsive even – and through them she demands that the viewer confront their ideals of beauty. While some of her work can be entirely unsubtle and is often confrontational, perhaps what is most compelling about Sherman’s practice is that her imagery is self-contained – no extended labels or long curatorial essays are required to understand Sherman’s point. Visitors to the exhibition were by turns visibly provoked, amused, repulsed and shocked by Sherman’s imagery – and always engaged. If you will miss this must-see exhibition at the Walker Center, try and track it down at the Dallas Art Museum where it opens March 13, 2013.