One face, a thousand lives: Cindy Sherman at MoMA

by Ann Jones

I can never quite decide about Cindy Sherman. I’ve seen countless photographs of her but none that really counts as a portrait; all I really know about her is that she’s a very good actress. I know roughly what she looks like of course, but as she’s something of a chameleon even that knowledge is woefully approximate. Sherman has made plenty of work that I really love but in amongst the great stuff there’s also plenty that leaves me cold, and even the work I like has a habit of downgrading itself in my head when it’s out of sight so that I always suspect I’m misremembering it. All this is probably why a couple of months after seeing her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I’m still working out quite what I want to say about it and simultaneously thinking I really should have written about it sooner. Hmmm.

Although I remember loving Sherman’s work when I first saw it, I approach new work with caution, as if expecting disappointment; though that never ends up being as great as I fear, there have been plenty of projects that I just don’t much like. The MoMA show is by far the most comprehensive exhibition of Sherman’s work I’ve seen so it offered a great opportunity to finally confirm that the balance of good and bad falls the well on the right side of indifferent.

The exhibition is broadly thematic rather than chronological though the each major series has been given its own room, so chronology creeps in through the back door. This works well given the series based nature of Sherman’s work and the comprehensive nature of the exhibition. Though the first gallery contains work from throughout Sherman’s career, including some images made while she was still a student, the exhibition really gets going in the second room with the Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), the body of work for which Sherman became famous in the late 1970s and which probably remains the work for which she is best known. Each picture in this series is a black and white photograph of Sherman as a character in a film. In no small measure the success of this series is down to Sherman’s acting ability; she doesn’t simply dress up for the camera, she becomes each character.

The pictures feel familiar though the films aren’t real. These are imagined situations in made-up stories: fictional versions of fictions. Sherman is dealing in pretence and  stereotypes but the images are well observed, allowing us to fill in the gaps and work out a narrative that seems like it must have come from a real film. The pictures tell their stories well but these are suggested narratives so ultimately each viewer’s interpretation is different (as an educator, one of the great things about this series is how useful it is as an aid to understanding the difference between describing and analysing an image). The series casts the viewer in the role of the voyeur without whom the story remains incomplete. The subject of our gaze – Sherman – projects an image, but it is up to use to construct the narrative. In this respect it’s hard not to see the series as in some way a response to Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema though I have no idea whether Sherman had read the essay when she made the work.

Cinema has a head start when it comes to spectacle and Sherman wisely doesn’t try to beat film at its own game. The pared down nature of the Untitled Film Stills is part of what makes them so interesting. At 8.5” by 11”, the prints are small and, unlike cinema, demand a one to one relationship with the viewer. Effectively we read each photograph as we would a book; we may discuss our interpretation with others but the experience of viewing the image tends not to be a shared one.

In the decades since the Untitled Film Stills were made plenty of other artists have made work that explores the relationship between the still photograph and narrative cinema and the relationship between the viewer of the image and the object of their gaze but somehow Sherman’s modestly presented photographs – in the intervening decades art photographs, including Sherman’s own, got big – quietly assert their dominance over the territory. To put the work into the context of its time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s artists such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince were rephotographing existing images and presenting them as their own, appropriation playing a significant role in the emerging post-modern art practices. Sherman’s work shares some of the same concerns but though it references cinema this is not direct appropriation of existing work, nor does it raise quite the same questions of authorship and authenticity.

In the 1980s, making the switch from black and white to colour and moving away from the overt connection with cinema though many of her images could still be seen as filmic, Sherman started to blur the boundaries between making art and fashion photography. The backgrounds all but disappear and Sherman fills the frame with her own body. The pictures still suggest a narrative to an extent, but with fewer clues. There is a sumptuousness to the colour prints that makes the pictures seductive even as they become repulsive, which they do for a time as Sherman all but exits from the frame.

Though Sherman’s work has followed the titling convention of Untitled with a number, there are a number of definable series with this. Of these, the history pictures have never really worked for me. Referencing art history in much the same way as the Untitled Film Stills reference film, they’re well executed but often have a deliberate comedy that adds nothing in my view, though I do somewhat admire Sherman for making them rather than staying with what was clearly a successful – and lucrative – formula. In this respect though, it’s Sherman’s recent work that interests me most.

For about the last decade or so, Sherman’s work has moved into a new phase. As the artist herself ages, so do the women she becomes in her work. Initially this work took the form of a series of portraits of women of a certain age desperately trying to hang on to their lost youth. The pictures are comically grotesque, thanks in no small measure to the awful combination of light-reflecting make-up and photographic lighting, especially when fake tans and whitened teeth are factored into the equation. Moving on a step from this work, Sherman’s recent society portraits offer a new challenge to her audience. The women here are also hanging onto lost youth but they seem richer and better able to exercise a certain level of taste. In short, in these pictures Sherman seems to embody the very collectors (or their wives) who make hers some of the most expensive contemporary photographs out there. And they don’t look good. This seems like a risky strategy if ever there was one, but it’s one that seems to have done nothing to diminish Sherman’s reputation or indeed the value of her work.

Overall, this is an exhibition that does a pretty amazing job of making sense of Sherman’s work. The less interesting works notwithstanding – and the clown pictures have never worked for me, and this show did nothing much to change that – there’s a real coherence to the body of work on display. Though fundamentally Sherman has maintained the same approach throughout her career, along the way she has challenged many different preconceptions about the representation of women. Though arguably her critique of the way that both Hollywood cinema and the fashion industry portray women, and the way we choose to present ourselves, doesn’t raise any significant new questions, by making the existing questions visual she is able to challenge her targets on their own terms and make the questions more readable.

Plus, and it’s a pretty big plus, the pictures are fascinating to look at and the stories we can read in them are limitless. There’s a lot to take in here; I could happily have gone back for at least another visit or two and I’m pretty sure each viewing would reveal new narratives. The exhibition is extensive and demanding of one’s full attention; it’s also exciting enough to ensure it gets it. I don’t see many exhibitions at MoMA but of the ones I’ve seen in recent years I’ve only spent longer with one –William Kentridge: Five Themes – and as that was of time based work, it had a significant head start. Like most people who teach art, I spend a lot of time discussing the pitfalls of working with clichés and stereotypes with students. Though few artists are able to use them quite as effectively, Sherman amply demonstrates that, if successful, a really thorough exploration of stereotypes can offer a fascinating picture of the world and tell us absorbing stories about ourselves.

The Cindy Sherman retrospective is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York until 11 June 2012 after which it will travel to: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (14 July – 7 October 2012); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (10 November 2012 – 17 February 2013); and Dallas Museum of Art (17 March – 9 June 2013).

About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at and occasionally contributes to – writing about art, mostly.

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