Death by Holga: 11.22.63

Review of Cindy Sherman at the Dallas Museum of Art

Cindy Sherman at the Dallas Museum of Art

Cindy Sherman at the Dallas Museum of Art (photo by Mr. Holga)

Cindy Sherman
Dallas Museum of Art
Through June 9, 2013

“[Cindy Sherman] skilfully weaves together images from our collective consciousness – borrowing from the worlds of film, fashion and art history to reveal the infinite malleability of identity and to challenge our preconceived notions of photography” Gabriel Ritter, the Nancy and Tim Hanley Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Dallas Museum of Art.

For an exhibit filled with self-made images of the artist to be vehemently described by art critics as “not self-portraits” would at first seem non-sensical. However, Cindy Sherman’s body of work which (with very few exceptions) consists of photographs of herself portraying often eerily familiar characters and archetypes  are not self-portraits. The artist wholly inhabits the characters she creates, exposing their fragility and humanity by revealing the artifice of publicly projected image and calling into question our accepted ideas of identity. These photographs are never of Cindy herself, rather of the character. The self, for Sherman is always the object not the subject. Her works express and indeed evoke in the viewer an intangible vulnerability, a sense of impending tragedy, defiance, yearning, fear and wry humor which are at once familiar and deeply disturbing, often slightly eerie, touching and deeply resonant. Through the familiar language of photography, and employing signifier or visual codes which hold meaning in popular culture and the media, Sherman appropriates the very cultural language and mores onto which she then turns the unwavering gaze of her camera lens to expose the truth behind the artifice of the image. There is an artful “Juxtaposition between what we first see and then this other … darker narrative” (Eva Rispini) .

The current exhibit is the most comprehensive show of her ground breaking work in at least 15 years and comes on the 25th anniversary of the major retrospective of her work which was also shown at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA).  Dallas is the last stop for the show which originated at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York before traveling to the San Francisco Museum of Modern  Art (SFMOMA) and  the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Unique to the Dallas show is the presentation of the Untitled Film Stills (Sherman’s breakthrough body of work from the 1975-1980) in a single strip, coursing the four sides of their dedicated room. Designed to mimic a film strip, this hanging brings the extraordinary collection into sharp relief. In addition to these early works, the most recent works of the show are also shown in a unique manner here in Dallas. For the first time, the -site specific photographic murals - huge wallpaper style montages – are presented “in the round” at the center of the DMA’s spectacular Barrel Vault gallery.

I attended the press preview for the show last week, ahead of its Sunday 17, 2013, opening. Local DMA assistant curator, Gabe Ritter and the exhibit organizer, Eva Rispini who is the Associate Curator, Department of Photography, at MoMA, conducted an enlightening gallery tour, providing insight into the production of the images, the works’ themes and an understanding of the artist, who despite nearly 40 years of projecting images of herself into the public arena, remains (intentionally) somewhat of an enigma.  As an artist whose very successful career is built upon her uncanny ability to create and unflinchingly portray myriad characters whilst simultaneously revealing  the artifice of identity  production, revelation of her true self, “the real Cindy Sherman” would alter her ability to embody these characters and  undoubtedly negate some of the impact of her work. Likewise, the fact that each work is untitled enables the observer to interact with the work on their own terms, rather than to be guided and shaped by Cindy Sherman’s interpretation of or name for it. This further removal of herself from the work increases its power to effect the viewer.

Cindy Sherman at the Dallas Museum of Art

Cindy Sherman at the Dallas Museum of Art (photo by Mr. Holga)

Cindy Sherman is a truly a one woman show. As you tour the exhibition it is almost impossible to comprehend that she not only takes each photograph entirely on her own, but that she also single-handedly designs, constructs and controls the set, lighting, makeup, hair, wardrobe and props. Aside from some early works, all images are created and captured by Cindy alone in her New York studio. The resultant images are a singular production from the mind of a truly gifted and relentlessly revolutionary artist.

Whilst Sherman does not overtly identify herself as a feminist, she certainly agrees that she makes strong feminist (and other sociopolitical) statements or observations in her works. One of the most repetitive themes is around the sexualisation, objectification and vulnerability of women in popular culture and the nature of image and identity. She also explores the various female archetypes of our times, and the desperation found just beneath the surface of women (and men) who create a particular image of themselves. Connected to this is her interest in the process of aging, the fragile edifice of social class and wealth. Alongside these overriding themes, Sherman indulges her fascination with horror films and the grotesque, clowns, fairy tales and legends.

When I return to the Cindy Sherman exhibit in a week or two to show my two young boys the astonishing chameleon-like qualities of this,  the greatest photographic artist of her time, there will be a few rooms I will avoid, due to their definite unsuitability for the eyes of 3 and 5 year old children. However the majority of the pieces will be as fascinating to them as they would be to a viewer of any age. This is the beauty of photography in general, its familiarity makes it accessible to us. In addition, Sherman’s appropriation of images,  styles, visual codes and cultural phenomena so familiar to us from the pages of fashion magazines, film and television and popular culture make many of these works, at first glance at least, largely familiar and innately recognizable .

Further examination however, of even the most familiar and seemingly simple images, (intentionally) reveal the artist’s hand and the cracks in the façade of the image projected by the character become clear. This pointed revelation of the artifice of not only the production of the image, but the characters projection of their appropriated identity, is what makes Sherman’s works so fascinating, so touching, insightful and resonant on a deeply human  level.

The familiar is never more apparent than in the collection of works from the 1977-1980 Untitled Film Stills series. Each of the small scale images is a black and white photograph staged and developed, to look like a still from a noir film of the 50s or 60s. This ground-breaking body of work (Sherman was only 23 when she commenced it) consist of 70 images each of which is powerful and conveys a story in its own right, but gathered together and displayed as they are here, becomes even more significant.

Each individual image is, in the words of curator Eva Rispini, a “pregnant moment” a palpable snapshot in time, where we feel know what has happened and what is about to occur. Sherman has created a minutely observed world in each image – a world rich in associations- that we have been socialized to understand through our exposure to films of this type. Despite this, all are fictional characters and scenes created entirely by Sherman. These works are an exploration of the female archetypes in popular culture of their times. In turn we observe the bombshell, the bored housewife, the city worker, the starlet, the vixen, the girl next door in familiar “movie”  scenes.  On the surface, the fiction is utterly convincing, however closer observation reveals the artist’s input. In one image, the wire to the shutter release button Sherman used to take the picture of herself in character is clearly and intentionally left visible. Sherman is revealing the process, revealing her hand, pointing out that image and identity is inherently created and produced.

Later in her career, Sherman takes even more pleasure in revealing the manipulation and manufacture of not only the image itself but the façade created by the character. Over the top theatricality where Sherman unveils the fiction of the scene is an important aspect of her work. The fiction is laid bare and the resultant image is far from seamless.

Untitled # 89 by Cindy Sherman, 1981 at the Dallas Museum of Art

Untitled # 89 by Cindy Sherman, 1981 at the Dallas Museum of Art (photo by Mr. Holga)

The Centerfolds from 1981 mark Sherman’s second foray into color photography, and from this point on, the artist works only in colour. Originally commissioned (but not used) by Art Forum magazine, these (large for their time) images show women distraught – victims – caught up in their own world. It’s as though the viewer is witnessing some anguish or a private moment they were not meant to see. Sherman herself spoke of her desire to play with the idea of a traditional centerfold image – she imagined a reader opening the magazine with the hopes of feasting their eyes on an objectified and sexualised female form, only to be pulled up by these decidedly disturbing images of women in distress. Sherman has skilfully appropriated lighting, colour and composition (in all but one image the subject is looking off camera) to suggest different locations and to create a world, a somewhat familiar narrative (similar to the earlier film stills) which her characters inhabit.

The Art History pieces continue the theme of the familiar yet entirely fictional appropriation of image and identity, as well as serving to further reveal the artifice behind image making. Sherman has sited herself in each image (both as a male and female characters) styled to resemble paintings by the great masters of art history. However, apart from a few examples, each image does not represent a particular painting, it just appropriates the style. Again, incredibly accurately observed and executed scenes are produced, employing props and costuming, skilful make up, prostheses, and wigs to transform Sherman’s blank canvas. Here more than ever, the artifice of image making is revealed – the obvious makeup, the clear use of wigs or bald caps, the obscenely globular prosthetic breasts among others.

The Sex Pictures and the Horrors are the few pieces where Sherman is not the object of the image and does not appear at all. These images are formed by photographing doll parts, mannequins and various substances including vomit, mold, rotting food,  blood and other such niceties. In part a reaction to the controversy at the time surrounding the highly sexual images of Robert Mapplethorpe and the alleged blasphemy of Andres Serrano as well as a comment on the hysteria surrounding AIDS and issues of sexuality, one can understand the context in which these confronting and gruesome works were produced. Sherman’s love of horror and the grotesque also informs them. Needless to say, however, the Sex and Horrors images are the ones I referred to earlier that I won’t be taking my kids to see!

Unlike some viewers, who see the Headshots or Hollywood to the Hamptons images as cruel and mocking, I prefer to view them as gentle pastiche, with a strong undercurrent of empathy for the characters who so effectively mirror the fragility of self-image and the vulnerability in us all.

The Society Pictures are again of and informed by their time and make insightful and razor sharp social commentary. Conceived and first shown around the time of the recent global financial crisis, these portraits highlight Sherman’s ongoing concerns with aging, wealth and class in a youth and status obsessed society.  The aspiration of the subjects resonates with our current immersion in reality TV, “instant” fame and celebrity makeovers. These are women of ‘a certain age’ who are all fighting aging and working (too hard) to project their desired image of themselves. Each image was produced in the studio – Sherman prepared makeup, costumes and wigs and photographed herself in front of a green screen before digitally inserting the background. These backgrounds evoke European Mansions, grand homes and formal gardens and were in fact all captured by Sherman in and around New York. These huge Images are at first glance imposing – wealthy, often haughty women gaze implacably at the viewer. There is a sense of wealth and (at least aspired to) class and attainment. However as we have come to expect, cracks in the façade are all too apparent. The cheap plastic pink slipper peaking from the grand Society Dame’s opulent gown, the obviously drawn on eyebrows of the aging woman haughtily viewing us from her perfect private library, the too thick makeup unable to mask the wrinkles and sag of old age. These are powerful images making a strong statement about our  wealth and appearance obsessed culture.

Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art stands in front of one of the newest works by Cindy Sherman

Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art stands in front of one of the newest works by Cindy Sherman (photo by Mr. Holga)

Cindy Sherman is a pioneer. From the initial works produced in her college days, to the most recent, she continually evolves, and appropriates society’s current themes. She is constantly developing her use of technology, tools and points of reference to further explore and convey her fascinations: the typology of human identity, the façade of representation, the process of producing that representation.

Sherman’s most recent works in this exhibit appear to be another leap of invention and innovation. For the first time she has used Photoshop to alter her own features (previously only ever having used makeup and prostheses). In addition, this is the first series of works to incorporate architecture, in that they are “wallpapered” directly onto the museum walls (and so destroyed when the exhibition closes). Each image is thus unique to its surroundings, and different according to the dimensions of the wall onto which they are affixed. They are huge in scale, the backgrounds digitally enhanced, stylized images taken from photos Sherman took of central park. These black and white designs are crafted to resemble toile wallpaper, in front of which are huge images of the artist, this time with no makeup. Sherman has subtly changed her own features digitally to convey these unsettling images of strangely dressed and posed women. References to myths, legends and fairy tales were apparent to me in the images of the kooky costumed, barefaced women. Despite the lack of makeup, digital (albeit subtle) alterations to the facial features ensure the artists true identity is still absent. As always, Cindy Sherman is the object not the subject .

Already a fan of Sherman’s work, I particularly enjoyed this show, however I am convinced that even those who may never have heard of her or her extraordinary work, will have much to gain from a visit to the Dallas Museum of Art. This is a rare chance to interact with the works of one of the greats of contemporary art – it’s a beautifully curated and presented show that is accessible on many levels for a range of viewers and I urge you to take the time to see this fascinating show.

Cindy Sherman is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art through June 9, 2013.

About Melanie O'Halloran

Melanie is an amateur art enthusiast who recently moved to Dallas from Melbourne, Australia with her family. Melanie has been enjoying sampling the vibrant Dallas Arts scene. Prior to moving to Dallas, Melanie had been studying towards a Masters of Art Curatorship at Melbourne University, and hopes to pursue some study in that area whilst in Dallas. Melanie’s taste in art is eclectic to say the least ranging from medieval religious iconography, to the twentieth century modern era and contemporary works in particular street art and installations. Another specific area of interest is Australian Aboriginal art and its potential to empower indigenous communities. Melanie can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/melanie.ohalloran

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