I know that you must want to read about Cindy Sherman’s series of clown images from 2004, and we will get to that. But first, because this is a retrospective exhibition that surveys the artist’s thirty-five-year career (originally curated by Eva Respini for the Museum of Modern Art in New York), a more general statement is in order, and that requires a more considered approach. Ever since Douglas Crimp featured Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills in a 1979 essay titled “Pictures,” writers have tended to label Sherman’s work with phrases like “investigating the codes of representation that construct identity,” or “revealing and critiquing the artifice of identity and how photography is complicit in its making.”1 After a while, the phrases begin to sound like incantations.
Such phases do capture the central theme of identity that has guided most of Sherman’s dozen or so series of photographic artworks, but they also give short shrift to the more unstable counter-narrative of the grotesque that also persists throughout her career. Lets call the former representation and the latter depresentation and then look at each of Sherman’s distinctive series of photographic works with this simple question: “How does the dialogue of representation and depresentation play itself out in visible form?” One very useful answer comes to us from an interview with Sherman conducted by the filmmaker John Waters that is included in the exhibition’s catalogue. Recognizing that we live in a culture where most women are in drag most of the time, he calls Sherman a “female female impersonator.” That seems to encapsulate the gist of it all.
Let’s start with the seventy-three Untitled Film Stills (1977–80) that are given such pride of place in the exhibition; three of them are somewhat larger than the others and in soft-focus color. At first glance, their pictorial conventions are obviously recognizable: they are the frozen melodramatic moments extracted from what one might believe to be films made by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Jean-Luc Godard. In these pieces, Sherman uses photographic images of herself to conjure moments of anxious self-awareness: she is a fake actress portraying a fake character being used by herself as director, cinematographer, production designer, and make-up artist, all not fake but all keenly aware of the conventions of genre. The work’s persistent sub-themes are quite clear: the woman who is being pursued, the woman who ambivalently capitulates to being “captured,” and the woman who has just encountered disturbing off-camera evidence and is wondering what to do about it. So, yes, their pictorial conventions feed back into what Laura Mulvey called “the visual pleasure of narrative cinema” in a famous 1975 essay on that topic, and yes, those conventions both reveal and conceal the rape fantasies that operate in the shadows of the cinematic unconscious.2
Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #56, 1980; gelatin silver print; 6.38 x 9.48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Cindy Sherman
But there is another, much less obvious vernacular source for these images, and that is crime-scene photography. It was exploited with ghastly wit in a series of 1972 photographs made by Les Krims titled The Incredible Stack-o’ Wheat Murders. Krims was the most visible and acclaimed artist working in Buffalo, New York, during the time when Sherman was a student there, and his work has yet to be acknowledged as exerting an early influence on Sherman’s thinking about images.
The series of thirteen untitled centerfolds clearly supports the forensic photography thesis. The series was initially commissioned as a project for Artforum and then exhibited at Metro Pictures in the fall of 1981. The aspect ratio of these works clearly bespeaks the printed pages of pornographic magazines, but they invert pornography. Instead of showing us scantily clad women reveling in their availability for the male gaze, Sherman’s centerfolds show us images of plain-looking women who seem to be recovering from some form of traumatic abuse. They seem sad, disassociated, and afraid, and it is clear that they exist in either the aftermath or the expectation of being raped.
In the mid-1980s, Sherman’s work took a turn toward the grotesque. This was announced with a vengeance in the so-called “barf” pictures, which show the artist covered over or otherwise surrounded by an abject miasma of viscous substances. Even more grotesquery can be found in the very frightening prosthetic sex-doll pictures, which do everything that any image can do to reverse the erotic idealization of the human body. In so doing, they also make a connection to earlier practices of surrealist photography, such as that of Hans Bellmer. It’s a pity that Sherman’s similar series of 1998 black-and-white still lifes featuring rude manipulations of hermaphroditic dolls is not represented in the show, an omission that leads one to think that the exhibition is tilted away from some of the more disturbing aspects of her work.
There are five examples of Sherman’s 2004 clowns series—too few, by my lights. These are Sherman’s first forays into the digital photography that she would later use to more sophisticated effect, but their real merit lies in the sheer wickedness that is brought to bear in their cementing of the elements of hilarity, terror, and eye-popping color into images that tell the true tale of their times. Even though this body of work has engendered a strange aphasia on the part of those same critics who are so prolix about issues of representation, they clearly represent Sherman’s greatest achievement, rivaled only by the earlier centerfolds.
The series of 2008 society portraits concludes the survey. I prefer to call these images “philanthropy dowagers,” because of their cruel exaggeration of the trappings of wealth and the signs of aging, the latter being mercilessly exaggerated by the digital toolbox to resemble maladroit applications of mortician’s make-up. Can anyone say financial crisis? Sherman’s society portraits are wicked caricatures of its beneficiaries.
Cindy Sherman is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through October 8, 2012.
1. Douglas Crimp, “Pictures” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum, 1985); Eva Respini, Cindy Sherman (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012), 25.
2. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Screen 6, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
Sherman’s big artistic break came with the “Untitled Film Stills.” To make the series, the artist served as both photographer and subject, transforming herself with makeup, wigs, and elaborate costumes into figures that recalled the movie stars of an earlier generation: Monica Vitti, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot. These photographs of women by a woman quickly gained traction within the feminist community. In the 1991 essay “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body,” theorist Laura Mulvey contextualized Sherman’s work within the prevailing feminist modes of thought at the time. When Sherman arrived on the scene, it marked the “end of that era in which the female body had become, if not quite unrepresentable, only representable if refracted through theory,” she wrote. “But rather than sidestepping, Sherman reacts and shifts the agenda. She … recuperates a politics of the body that had, perhaps, been lost or neglected in the twists and turns of ’70s feminism.”
Even at a glance, it is easy to see some of the ways Sherman’s representations of women avoided the proclivities of the day. The heavy pancake makeup, high heels, and bullet bras of the film stills harken back to the ’50s rather than the au naturel look favored in the ’70s. And as such, “it is not just a range of feminine expressions that are shown but the process of the ‘feminine’ as an effect, something acted upon,” wrote Judith Williamson in a widely cited essay about Sherman’s series.