The idea that identity is easily constructed and manipulated for the cameras may not seem ground-breaking, but Cindy Sherman has been at it for 35 years, long before the age of reality TV and Facebook. Since the start of her career, Sherman has had an uncanny ability to anticipate the cultural zeitgeist, and her influence permeates contemporary portraiture, where so much imagery is self-consciously constructed for the camera.
Her talent and influence are on spectacular display in a retrospective of her career at MoMA, beginning with what amounted to her eureka moment–a series of identity-bending self-portraits she made as a student in 1975–and progressing through her career to her 2008 series of society portraits. The exhibit adds up to more than the sum of its parts, underscoring Cindy Sherman’s influence and intent in ways that are not always obvious in her individual works.
Sherman is known for her ingenious and provocative creations of (mostly) female character types, all of which are photographs of the artist herself dressed in the different roles. That all of her images are self-portraits is at once beside the point and central to the meaning of the work: Throughout her career, Sherman has explored the malleability of identity and how, with a complicit photographer, identity can be invented and re-invented through dress, make-up, and props that trigger cultural cues and references so familiar to viewers. At first glance, the subjects look familiar and real.
Of course, Sherman is both model and photographer. She shoots without assistants, doing all of the make-up, hair styling, and prop styling herself. And the images aren’t of Sherman or her alter-egos. They’re meant as commentary on popular culture, expressed as a kind of performance art in front of the camera. (“One thing that I’ve always known is that the camera lies,” she said in a 1983 interview.)
Her Untitled Film Stills, for instance, comprise 70 8×10 black and white images that examine the ideals of femininity and beauty perpetuated by Hollywood during the 50s and 60s. Inspired by the cheap publicity stills handed out by movie studios of that era, Sherman re-created scenes in which she starred as career girls, housewives, bombshells, and other female movie archetypes. Her 2008 society portraits, meanwhile, are a commentary on the tragic and vulgar affects of a certain cohort of aging woman of wealth, struggling to keep up with demands placed on them by a culture obsessed with youth, beauty, and status.
Sherman didn’t show up at the MoMA press preview on February 21. She is reportedly unassuming and genuinely nice in person, but generally press shy. She also prefers to avoid interpreting her work, leaving that to the viewer instead (all of her works are untitled for that reason).
But she explained in a 1987 interview, “When I was in school I was getting disgusted with the attitude of art being so religious or sacred, so I wanted to make something that people could relate to without having to read a book about it beforehand. So that anybody off the street could appreciate it, even if they couldn’t fully understand it; they could still get something out of it. That’s the reason why I wanted to imitate something out of the culture, and also make fun of the culture as I was doing it.”
But Sherman’s intent is not simply to parody the character types she depicts; there is genuine empathy in the dark undercurrents of her imagery. It is also richly layered, complex and open to broad interpretation–attributes that make the work so enduring–without being opaque.
The Cindy Sherman exhibition at MoMA runs through June 11, 2012.
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