Cindy Sherman comes to Texas
Enjoying seeing Cindy Sherman so much in New York, I was excited to be able to view her Retrospective again because it was coming to the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). Of course, I did write about my experience with Sherman at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). It had opened in Dallas in mid March, but I was way too busy to go then. Although, having said that, I did make time to see Cy Twombly and Picasso in Houston in March. Since I had known in advance, I was able to plan a good time to get out of town, get cheap bus tickets on Megabus, and my friend was able to get a free hotel room for a couple of nights. I always want to get out of town to see art. Finally arriving at the exhibit, well, was not quite as exciting. Not because I had already seen it, but the display didn’t seem as dynamic. It was not a very dramatic display, in fact, it was a extremely safe. Walking up, was an open room with a piece taken from different series, then that was mixed within a series of large photographic murals from 2011-2012. This particular series is very different to me because Sherman doesn’t seem to be portraying a “type” here, she seems to be creating these characters out of her imagination. I don’t find these personas particularly relate-able, but they are the most curious. A juggler with short blond hair, wearing a nude body suit under a decorative leotard performing outfit, with knee socks and tennis shoes. This gives Sherman a very boy-like, flat chested appearance. Yet another image is also sporting the nude body suit, but this time a white corset costume made up with layers of fringe, reminding me of feathers, gold gloves going up to her elbows and maybe tap shoes. This is a more feminine depiction than the previous, emphasizing the body, complete with a red bob cut. Eventually, Sherman is “nude” in similar clothing, with breasts and pubic hair. Still a different piece is created from an odd, almost knight/warrior looking outfit, with some type of made up looking crest, then is strangely paired with velour tiger striped pants with footies or socks. This is the most of androgynous of the figures, with curly short hair and oversized baggy clothing. These misfits seem like they don’t belong anywhere, maybe roaming around as a band of gypsies or with a carnival. The background of these images are black and cream imagery of nature, I assume extremely photo-shopped photographs, as some have been altered to have a painterly quality while others remain more photographic looking. The background imagery reminds me of the pattern in toile, or some other traditional image. These pieces also differ from her other series as they are presented as site specific photographic murals that stick directly to the wall. MOMA had them displayed as you walk to the exhibit as well, however, they were eighteen feet tall. At the DMA, it was hard to tell the size, but approximately half that. The scale changes the presentation greatly. These fictitious characters should be much larger than life , their imaginary world should be an environment. Combined with the generic decision to make a compilation of her work in the front room and place them among the murals was not a successful layout. My other concern with the display was that fact that it did not flow. This was mainly due to the each gallery only having one door. You walk in, you walk out, you walk past the same art in the hall again, you go to the next room. I do hate directly comparing to MOMA, but the eleven galleries there led you to the next in a chronological experience through Sherman’s work, creating a continuity in the exhibit. Discussing this after with my friend Jim, he said I am spoiled working with such a great Exhibition Director, Kathy Armstrong, at the Southwest School of Art. It is true, I have learned a lot from her. Paying close attention to the display of the work, I have seen walls built and removed, even creating a room when necessary. I have experience from building a twelve foot wall in my studio, the DMA could have easily made some adjustments, as simple as adding an additional doorway to some of the rooms. Despite how I felt by the display of the work, ultimately, I was still pulled in by Sherman’s pieces. Her work stands on it own, captivating me. Most of the work on display is large scale, contrasting her first landmark series, Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980, which is a collection of eight by ten inch black and white photos. Immediately, I am drawn to Untitled #153, 1985. Or as I refer to it, Dead. The image is haunting, her lifeless body staring off with empty, open eyes. Of course, this is my narrative. As it stands untitled, there is no indication that this is a dead body. It obviously isn’t, Sherman is alive and well. But these are the implications of a wet body, covered in debris, laying on the muddy ground. This piece in particular makes me want to know more. What happened? Who is she? Is she dead? Traumatized? I want to know how this body ended up laying on the ground in some non-descrip location, very anonymous. Even if this body is not supposed to be dead, this person certainly is not mentally present, looking far off into the distance, trying to think past what is happening now, possibly already empty and emotionally dead. Engaging pieces like this are what is great about Sherman’s work and leaves you with more questions than answers. The description on the wall discusses how Sherman’s construction of the feminine is far from desirable. This is notable in pieces such as Untitled #175, that I simply call Bulimic. One of her many images she refers to as Grotesque, this work is composed mainly of half eaten food and a pile of vomit. The food is strewn around, as if hastily eaten and discarded, in a frenzy, as if on a binge. In this series, Sherman begins to remove herself from the work, leaving only a glimpse or piece of herself, until ultimately removing herself for a period. The only reference to Sherman in this piece is the look of self loathing on her face as it is reflected in a pair of sunglasses, also haphazardly thrown down in the middle of this moment of excess. The piece still refers to feminine issues from a female perspective, even without the female form being the center of this image. The Grotesque Series is unappealing, experimental, and often disgusting. And I am very much drawn to them. A glimpse, to an eye, then just a shadow, until Sherman is completely removed from the image. Reading about this, Sherman felt she may be too dependent on her image and wanted to see if she could create the same type of narrative removing herself. The results are a body of work that discusses what lies beyond the surface in a very physical, almost aggressive manner, creating what I would consider her more shocking work. I have watched many people dismiss this work, barely glancing at it, possibly because it is so raw. In these pieces, there is not the illusion of being fake or uncomfortable, as many of her subjects take on. These take on a seemingly more honest approach as she confronts private, taboo topics. Changing her props to vomit and a shit looking substance covering all but her eye, this series is not for the faint of heart. While Sherman herself becomes absent, the use of her costumes such as wigs take over and the use of body parts from a medical catalog are used very sexual ways. The Centerfold Series is another controversial body of work by Sherman. I did discuss this when I originally saw this exhibition in New York. The work was commissioned, then rejected by Artforum, because it appeared too controversial. The issue surrounding these works stemmed from the emotional states portrayed and were seen as women about to or that have already been victimized. These women are all exposed in many ways. Physically, they are laying down and closely cropped, confined into a tight box of charged mental states. Emotionally, these women are staring off into the distance, not directly acknowledging the camera, as seen in other series such as the Head Shots or Socialites. They are contemplating, daydreaming, or possibly scared. The viewer becomes a voyeur to an intimate, vulnerable moment. I find them haunting and chilling, the emotions feel so real to me. Attracted by their displayed vulnerability as well as the fact that they are oblivious to the camera, the gaze, as they are caught up in their private thoughts with a public display of emotion. Greatly differing from the often straight on look from a naked woman normally in this same position. The format of the two page centerfold spread has long been associated with seduction, and displayed to be viewed by men. While the imagery Sherman provides is a contradiction to that, they are still exposed, but in a much different way than the stereotypical centerfold tart. As a series, this was the one I spent the most time with. Despite the original controversy, Untitled #96, 1981 was sold in 2011 for $3.89 million, breaking records for the sale a single photograph. That image displays a great use of color, with a young girl lost in thought staring off into the distance, holding a newspaper ad.
Sherman’s fashion series are parodies of the superficial world of clothing, name brands, and looks as a job. Untitled #137, 1984 or Fashion Junky, to me touches upon well known drug use in these circles, both as a model to stay thin, but also to have a good time, the night life. This “model” takes this further, looking strung out on heroin in expensive clothing. Another reference I read was she looked like a victim of domestic violence, hair disheveled, with a blank look on her face. Many critiques of Sherman’s work often and quickly discusses how many of the women seem to be victims. Other images in this series are stiff and aggressive, or display very over done women, and include many variations of beauty. As unflattering as these depictions are, quite a few designers and magazines have worked with Sherman, allowing her artistic vision to control the images. So why am I such a huge fan of Cindy Sherman? Yes, it begins with her imagery, but goes much deeper than that. It is impressive that she is the artist, model, stylist, makeup and hair artist, and photographer. I can appreciate the hard work and vision of an auteur. I talked earlier about a particular series of work I found unrelate-able. Discussing this with someone, they laughed, and said they couldn’t relate to any of her characters. I didn’t understand that. We have all seen the femme fatale, the housewife, the model, the socialite, a clown, etc… In fact, that is the relate-able part to me, these figures exist in our lives. Sherman is commenting on the plasticity and how malleable a persona actually is. Often, I believe she is talking about what lies beneath the facade. Most fairy tales are creepy. While I didn’t discuss any imagery from that series (or several others), Sherman is capturing the essence of what is there, not just glossing over what is on the surface, often our only type of experiences and encounters with these women. Ultimately, she is proving a person can be whom ever they choose. None of these personas are her alter ego. They are a compilation of the saturation of media Sherman has been exposed to all her life. In fact, since her work doesn’t refer to anyone specific, they are “representations of representations” (Respini, Eva, Cindy Sherman. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012)