A new exhibit recently opened at MoMA—a retrospective of the work of Cindy Sherman, photographer and chameleon extraordinaire. Sherman’s work is about as different as can be from that of Vivian Meier and Elsa Dorfman, two other photographers I’ve admired on this blog. Meier took gritty street portraits, Dorfman takes posed but simple and direct studio ones. Both of them have taken self-portraits, but most of their work depicts others in frank and realistic modes. Sherman, on the other hand, has used herself as a model for decades and has explored the idea of identity with a variety of costumes, wigs, make-up, props, and atmospheres.
Though on the surface a self-portraitist, Sherman doesn’t really consider most of her work self-portraiture. Rather, in her photographs she tries to take on personae and explore stereotypes and images, especially those of women. They are, in other words, fictional self-portraits. Or just fictional portraits with herself as a stand-in for others, though no doubt there is usually an element of herself in them too. Recently, for instance, she has been playing with stereotypes of aging and the various ways in which wealth can distort a woman’s life, both obviously questions that must be close to her as she approaches 60 a very successful artist.
One of the things that interests me the most about Sherman’s work is that, while her work’s intention is to disrupt female stereotypes, many of her photographs remain so sexy. She has indeed done series of works that are disturbing and that examine the nastier side of the human body, but in these she did not use herself as a primary model. This NYT review of the new exhibit at MoMa points out that this work is also largely ignored in the retrospective.
Sherman is clearly capable of extensive use of prosthetics and appearance-altering make-up. But she focuses these efforts on her face. She dresses and poses her body in a variety of ways, but she shops for costumes that fit her naturally thin shape. She is supreme at creating bulbous chins and noses, opulent lips, and even prostheses that augment her breasts, often in disturbing ways. Yet Sherman has never (as far as I know) done much to alter the traditionally attractive profile of her body.
There seems to me a deep irony in the fact that much of the work of this woman whose goal and mission has been to upturn stereotypes of women can still be viewed somewhat pornographically. Yes, it is a pornography that points out the complicit nature of the viewer, and it may therefore be unsettling. But even now that she’s exploring “women of a certain age,” they can be strikingly strong and fit, as is Untitled #466, which MoMA uses as its representative work on its page about the show and which depicts an imposing woman in a flowing aqua gown. Or like Untitled #463, in which Sherman has superimposed four images of herself dressed up as party-going friends with manicured nails and bare-shouldered clubbing outfits (included in this slide show).
That’s one reason I was so interested in the discussion of the evolution toward paunchy of one recent character (starting about 4 minutes into this terrific 20-minute art21 video). I would love it if she would push this even further and do a “fat women” series. It would be fascinating to see how such work would be greeted.
What I have always valued about Sherman’s work is the same in-your-face quality that makes them honest even though they are contrived. Amid all the various rather dumb debates about fiction vs. nonfiction in the writing world, the world of visual art has been playing with the categories often more successfully. Sherman has stood for me as a hinge between the two genres. She is a person who uses fantasy to tell the truth, at least a certain truth, about the women she becomes. There’s an intellectual honesty that can sometimes disappear from written fiction, but a self-awareness and playfulness that sometimes is absent in memoir. And there’s always this fascinating remnant of herself in her pictures, a remnant she uses rather than denies.
Excerpt from documentary on Sherman’s work by Paul Tschinkel, about her early work (about 4 minutes).
Art21 excerpt about her “fashion” photography (about 3 minutes).
The full PBS Art21 interview (about 1 hour).
An amateur video of a visit to the current MoMA show by James Kalm (not a great video, but fun to “be there,” about 16 minutes).
New York Magazine review with a good, short slide show.
Google images of much of Sherman’s work, for a sampling.