With a career spanning three decades, Cindy Sherman still has her finger on the button. Working alone using herself as model, director and photographer, her portraits continue to offer a new, ambiguous twist on media representations of women. Andrew Davies looks at some of the many faces of this contemporary art A-lister, assesses how her subjects are ageing with their creator and asks whether an artist obsessed with the dressing up box can tell us anything new about our celebrity-saturated times.
No one knows who the real Cindy Sherman is, least of all me, I’m thinking, as I look at images and the press release for her forthcoming solo show. I remember where I’ve seen the face before, as a keen graduate on the way to my first job. Back in the summer of 2003 the Serpentine Gallery had commissioned bespoke versions of Sherman’s work to adorn Gloucester Road tube station. These works, made between 1983 and 2000, immediately burned into my memory—you don’t often see huge billboards of the same woman in ten different guises while standing on the tube platform.
So, who is she? Her oeuvre of over 500 photographic portraits offer a mischief’s gallery of lost souls, from B movie stars to clowns, fairy tale heroines and, in her new show, minted divas with a secret to hide. Sherman’s allusions to moments of international cinema first put her on the map with the celebrated Untitled Film Stills (1977-80). These photographs feature Sherman re-enacting imaginary moments from 1950s-era black and white films; specifically highlighting the way in which such scenes reinforce female stereotypes. The artificiality of the ‘set’ in the photograph was synonymous with the women she portrayed: big hair, overdone makeup, tight clothing. Sherman made sixty-nine of these filmic photographs in total before moving onto other realms of female typecasting in works such as Centerfolds (1981) and Fashion (1983-4).
Since then, Sherman has appeared in a variety of deeply nebulous, ambiguous and discomforting ‘roles’, adopting every guise imaginable, from people she had seen on the bus to characters within the mise-en-scéne of reconstructed old master paintings. She has built her career by being a serial manipulator of beauty, gender and age through a precise study of the subject’s makeup, clothing, poses, body language and, most importantly, relationship with the lens. With delicate contortions of her face, the use of prosthetics and controlled lighting Sherman ‘becomes’ the subject, always perceivable from behind the disguise — the constant presence in her art. She is the work.
Today, using digital photography, Sherman pastes backgrounds onto a green screen upon which she can project her self image — a process she first utilized in her series of disturbing clown photographs from 2004. Sherman’s ‘sad but happy’ jokers perfectly fitted the dual, real/artificial paradigm of her by now well-established practice. Indeed, the relevant difficulty or ease with which the photographs are composed is inherent to the work itself. The effectiveness, the minute attention to detail and the intentional ‘errors’ all add to the complexity and excitement of the portraiture.
Sherman’s new series of photographs will hit London on 14 April in a show at Sprüth Magers Gallery. These have already received extensive praise in New York (listed fourth in New York magazine’s top ten shows of 2008) and have been heralded as some of her best work — evoking ‘real’ lives, real people and real feelings.
It may even be that Sherman has finally let her guard down — a little, anyway. The focus this time is on moneyed women; older but not necessarily wiser. It’s an intimidating cast of suburban misfits: a Greek goddess pulling a dance move, a lottery-winning Kath and Kim in a Melbourne townhouse, an Upper East Side patroness with a plastic surgery problem… Honed over three decades, Sherman’s skill lies not just in putting on the clothes but in slipping into the character of those she portrays. The physical props — clothing, makeup, prosthetics — help, but what ultimately seals the quality of the photograph is her control of facial expressions and body language. Unlike an actress, Sherman’s persona is only required at the point when the camera clicks. But that moment is all important; this is where she puts the ‘real’ into the artifice and determines the emotion and psychological resonance of the portrait; there must be exaggeration, but not to the point of caricature. Similarly, the backdrops in these images simultaneously gel and jar with the human subject. In Untitled #476 (2008), above, steely greys in the chair and picture frame reflect the fancy lady’s hair and jewellery, while her dress blends with the chair surround and wood panelling. It is ‘picture perfect’ — a convincing façade with which to demonstrate the flaws in the very ideal of material perfection. If the accompanying dog was not a stuffed prop and Sherman was actually sitting on the green velvet couch, would it be any more convincing a photograph or a more valid study of a ‘type’?
Sherman’s work, while technically brilliant, always invites the viewer to think about the nature of superficial appearance. it’s amazing to think that she’s effectively been doing the same thing for three decades and her ‘argument’ is still as relevant as ever. While these images might, on one level, come across as critiques, piss takes or put-downs, they are actually mordant affirmations of the complex codes with which outward appearance is bound up, and which are common to us all. Anyone can ‘dress up’, after all, and become, superficially, something they’re not. But Sherman goes way beyond playful mimicry time and time again, making us re-look at the reality of women both in the media glare and in their every day lives.
Perhaps this is Sherman’s true genius; her ability to make archetypes look, outwardly, utterly convincing and impervious until on closer inspection you begin to absorb the artifice at play and find the images exuding a darker, more unsettling truth about the nature of human identity.
Cindy Sherman Opens at Sprüth Magers, London from 16th April-27th May 2009.