Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

Is Cindy Sherman ready for her close-up?

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) thought so and organized a traveling retrospective, which just opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

Curated by Eve Respini at MoMA, the show brings together more than 150 photographs from the mid-1970’s to the present.

155 of the 170 works shown in New York fill half of the fourth floor at SFMOMA. A wall of large murals, Sherman’s latest body of work, greets the viewer at the entrance. The exhibit is organized thematically but the earliest work is in the beginning.

The complete series of ‘untitled film stills’ and ‘centerfolds’ take up the first two galleries. Next come the 2007-08 fashion photos with Sherman in various disguises dressed up and wearing Balenciaga. The exhibit moves through all her themes - Playboy centerfolds, historical portraits, vicera and bloody body parts, clowns, Hollywood starlets and their failed ambition and a film entitled "Paper Dolls."  The exhibit ends with her society portraits, hung against walls painted Kelly green.

The ‘untitled film stills,” first presented at the Metro Gallery in SoHo in the winter of 1981 are arguably the most provocative and interesting part of her body of work. When she was 23 and just out of Buffalo State College, she started playing dress up - her favorite childhood game - but now with purpose and intensity. The results were the 70 some odd photos called "Untitled Film Stills."

The format is a modest black and white small size that imitated B-movie stills. She represented herself in 1940’s and 1950’s dress as the typical women of that era – housewife, glamor girl, anonymous woman. The stills are so “real” those who know nothing about her work think (as one women did when I visited) that they were real. "Who took these photos?" she asked.

The answer is - and was - Cindy.

For Sherman is always in costume, a one-woman performance act where she is the main character, the director, the photographer, and the make-up artist. She is the star of her own show.

The idea that identity depends on props and costumes is an old theatrical truism. But when taken off the stage and placed into artfully staged tableau, the camera, her camera, lies. 

Another series presented in depth include Sherman’s 1981 series of 12-color photographs known as the "centerfolds."  Originally commissioned by Artforum magazine, these send-ups of men’s erotic magazine centerfolds depict characters in a variety of emotional states, ranging from terrified to heartbroken to melancholic.

With this series, Sherman purportedly played into theories of the male gaze but reversed the dynamic by (as usual) making herself both object of the gaze and the photographer.

It’s possible to "buy" the theory that this portion of her body of work was a protest against the resurgence of the idea of woman as passive, helpless and sexually available to any male with enough money in his pocket. That theory would work if the photographs showed any depth of feeling. Instead, they objectify woman as much as any girly magazine and encourage the viewer to be complicit in this exploitation.

They are also a modern take on photography as performance art, self-aware, ironic and, equally cognoscent of the market forces driving the art market.

For her headshots from 2000-2002 (sometimes called Hollywood/Hamptons), the artist conceived a cast of characters of would-be or has-been actors (in reality secretaries, housewives, or gardeners) posing for headshots to get an acting job.

Sherman’s subjects here are not mock stereotypes, but potentially real people – victims of the identity mechanisms that she has made a career of exploring. In fact, as the show moves from gallery to gallery, her lack of empathy and compassion becomes disturbing.

One gallery is filled with photographs of viscera and bloody body parts, including a penis. These looks like outtakes from the latest Hollywood gore fest. I can't image what this is supposed to represent but, unlike the thriller, it lacks thrills, chills and isn't even remotely illuminating.
Her 2008 society portraits feature women “of a certain age” from the top echelons of society who struggle with today’s impossible standards of beauty.

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? These women are victims of the gender and identity issues that provide the springboard for her career.

The PR around these photographs claim the work to be psychologically honest and provocative. What they are is caricatures of women who are already caricatures.

When asked the question, “Critics like to discuss the male gaze and the objectification of women in relation to your work. Did you think about that stuff?“ Sherman responded, “I was totally unaware of that” (“How I Made it.” By Mark Stevens in NY Magazine on April 18 2008). On another occasion she said, “I wonder if maybe it’s all a lot of crap. Maybe the work doesn’t mean anything. When they’re writing about it, they’re just finding whatever to attach their theories to. I just happen to illustrate some theories” (“Cindy Sherman: From Dream Girl to Nightmare” by Glenn Hefland). Furthermore, “Sherman herself insists that, while her work is drawn upon her particular experience of womanhood, she is not a feminist and has no political agenda” (“A Woman of Parts: Interview with Cindy Sherman.” By Noriko Fuku in Art in America).

 Sherman has said that “[T]he work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”

Sherman is a player in an ancient art form. Like the Greek actors, she wears many masks, plays many parts. But the Greeks had dramatists like Aeschylus and Sophocles to show us the many faces of man (and woman). Humor, pathos, tragedy were all part of that drama. In Sherman's plays, the monologue is one-dimensional and often, cruel.

There is no Cindy Sherman,” writes curator Eva Respini in her catalog essay, “only infinite characters who reflect the countless mediated images that bombard us daily.”

That's true enough. It's also true that she is talented, technically accomplished and knows how to play the art game. Enjoy the photographs for their glossy surface but don't think they criticize the objectivation of women or critique the male gaze. They reinforce the image of women as victims, fools or there for sexual use when young and to be mocked when old. No wonder she's so popular.

Somewhat shorter version:

SFMOMA; From July 14th to October 2012


namastenancy said...

from Joey Lusk (posted with permission): I think you did a great job of hitting the key notes. I love how you brought in her own contradictory thoughts on her position as "feminist" or feminist artist. The embedded images you chose have a lot of impact and really reinforce your points about the value of her more current work. I think it is a true critique, not just a review. Your article definitely asks a bunch of excellent questions. You've convinced me that her later work lacks the focus and content (regardless of intent) that her earlier work suggests.

Zoomie said...

This is the kind of work that baffles me. I can never figure out if the artist is genuine or has just figured out that you can put any old thing out there and people will snap it up if other people say it's "good" or "provocative" or whatever.

namastenancy said...

Quote:If Sherman is not presenting her characters in a way in which we are supposed to critique the objectification of women in media and images, then she is contributing to the problem.

namastenancy said...

You aren't the only one. When I left the press preview, one of the photographers said to me, "I don't get it." I said that it's all political - she got the ear of somebody influential and built off that. She also is coldly hostile to women via her art and that always sells to the art establishment which has no use for real uppity women.