Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

From "Untitled Movie Stills." courtesy SFMOMA

Writing a review of the new Cindy Sherman retrospective at SFMOMA has proved to be surprisingly difficult. 155 of the 170 works shown in New York fill half of the fourth floor at SFMOMA and it's more than enough to take in. She's ready for her close up but are we?

I think that one of the reasons I am having such a difficult time writing this review is that Sherman's work does not resonate with me. The original work is nowhere near as provocative or revolutionary as the work of Hannah Wilke or Eleanor Antin, to name just two. She obviously knows how to play the NY art game well enough to make it in the art world but I found her work hollow and the hype ridiculous.

The film stills are still the most interesting part of her body of work. It's the one series of photos where she wears all the faces of modern Eve and actually pulls it off. This work came out of a decade which saw the fragile gains of feminism steadily chipped away. So, it's possible to "buy" theory that the body of work protested the prevailing resurgence of of the idea of woman as passive, helpless and sexually available to any male with enough money in his pocket.

Sherman dresses herself in various outfits - the housewife, glamor girl, anonymous woman. The idea that identify depends on props and costumes is an old theatrical truism, but when taken off the stage and into a diorama representing real life, gains in intensity the more you look.


She is always in drag, a one woman show where she is the main character, the director, the photographer, the make-up artist. The theatrical illusion, the performance art supposedly makes a profound statement about the fluidity of sexual identity, gender and age stereotypes, about the unconscious fear that women feel public and the sense of menace. The work is and is supposed to be far from erotic.

In that she succeeds. But then, as a woman, I'm not the audience who would find images of women in peril sexually appealing.

The other thing that bothers me is the cruelty of her work. Her failed actresses, her over-the-hill wealthy matrons are presented without a scrap of compassion or, indeed, real understanding. One of the wealthy women, dressed in red and with a face like beef jerky, could give Lady MacBeth a lesson or two in ruthlessness.They are certainly grotesque and macabre but so what?

The gallery filled with photographs of viscera and bloody ooze looks like outtakes from the latest Hollywood gorefest. I can't image what this is supposed to represent but, unlike the thriller, it lacks thrills, chills and isn't even remotely entertaining.

Hiding behind masks is as old as theater. But the Greeks had dramatists like Aeschylus and Sophocles to show us the many faces of man (and woman). Here in SF, we have even better drag performers - funnier and more revealing because they are less pretentious.

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