Although in Cindy Sherman's photographs she acts as her own model, stylist, hairdresser and photographer, the American artist's works are hardly self-portraits. Sherman adopts different identities each time, fashioning herself as various characters and archetypes. Through the staged artifice of her photographs, Sherman conveys femaleness and identity as unfixed fabrications determined by social and cultural norms.Read More
After graduating from The State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976, Sherman quickly attracted attention with her 'Untitled Film Stills' (1977–1980). Mimicking the aesthetics of 1950s and 1960s Hollywood films, B-movies and European arthouse films, the 69 black-and-white photographs are fictitious stills from movies that never existed. In the images, Sherman 'plays' a stereotypical female character such as a housewife in Untitled Film Still #35 (1979) or a young girl just arrived in the big city in Untitled Film Still #21 (1978).
Sherman's interest in the visual codes of femaleness—with attention to fashion, makeup, demeanour and stereotypes—continued through 'Centerfolds', a series of 12 horizontal prints commissioned by Artforum in 1981. In reference to the centrefolds in men's erotic magazines and a pervasive history of consuming the female body through images, the artist photographed herself in passive positions, either lying or kneeling. The images were interpreted by some critics as showing women in vulnerable situations, which led Artforum to reject them. Sherman directly followed the series with her four 'Pink Robes' photographs, for which she posed as a woman covering her body with a pink robe and gazing challengingly at the camera, refusing objectification.
Sherman's consideration of the relationship between identity and mass media has associated her with the Pictures Generation, a group of young American artists from the 1970s and 1980s that includes Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Laurie Simmons and Richard Prince. Questioning notions of authorship, the Pictures Generation artists were inspired by cultural critics and French philosophers like Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes, the last of whom famously declared 'The Death of the Author' in his 1967 manifesto. Barthes denied the possibility of original authorship, arguing that any creative output is, in fact, a derivative of others' work. Sherman—acting as both the author and subject throughout her practice—similarly does not see her artworks as shots taken of her, but instead as reproductions of ideas and archetypes.
Reacting to a mounting market demand for her photographs, from the mid-1980s some of Sherman's photographic series took a darker turn, with the artist increasingly disguising herself to the point of being unrecognisable in them. The images in 'Fairy Tales' (1985) and 'Disasters' (1986–1989), for instance, are inhabited by gory remnants of a violent crime or the aftermath of unknown disasters featuring body parts, vomit and blood. Part of the series, Untitled #169 (1987), features a close-up of a man's head lying on the ground, surrounded by snow and shattered glass. The creature, though completely unrecognisable, is Sherman, transformed with prosthetics and wigs. Conversely, in 'Sex Pictures'—a later series, from 1992—the artist is physically absent from the photographs and instead populates the images with anatomical mannequins arranged into vulgar and disturbing sexual positions.
Made around the same time as 'Disasters' and 'Sex Pictures', the series 'History Portraits' (1988–1990) saw Sherman borrowing from European portraiture traditions to cast solemn-looking figures in absurdly artificial settings. Untitled #228 (1990) is a full-length portrait of Sherman dressed as Judith—a biblical figure who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes to save her people, and a popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque paintings. While Sherman composed the portrait with references to Western art historical conventions—such as the use of textiles to adorn the background—she also willingly disclosed the artificiality of the scene: Holofernes' head, upon closer inspection, is more like a Halloween mask than a real head; the fabrics, though enhanced through the camera, are cheap buys from thrift stores. In another image, Untitled #216 (1989), the artist's awkwardly attached prosthetic breast reveals the portrait as a staged scene. Through her undisguised use of props and prosthetics, Sherman exposes the artificiality of identity construction; the ideas of identity, just like portraits, are always mediated.
In more recent years, Sherman has confronted the obsession with youth in contemporary culture. 'Society Portraits' (2008) shows her as various women of wealth whose heavy make-up and surgical enhancement hint at attempts to conceal and slow down the process of ageing. In another series from 2016, Sherman portrays ageing movie stars styled as they had been in their youth, criticising the impossible demands on women to maintain their youthful appearances.
Exhibiting since the 1970s, Sherman has recently held solo and group exhibitions at Sprüth Magers, London (2018); The Broad, Los Angeles (2016); Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2015); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (2013); Tate Modern, London (2012); and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2012) among others. In 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, organised a major retrospective of her work that travelled to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center and Dallas Museum of Art. Sherman's photographs have been included in numerous international exhibitions, notably the Whitney Biennial (1995, 1993, 1991, 1985, 1983); the Biennale of Sydney (1990, 1984); and documenta 7 (1982). In 2013 she co-curated an exhibition for the 55th Venice Biennale.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2018
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