BY Chris Wiley in Reviews | 01 SEP 12
Featured in
Issue 149

Cindy Sherman

BY Chris Wiley in Reviews | 01 SEP 12

Despite her towering fame, Cindy Sherman’s work is often difficult to see. Over the years she has deftly bobbed and weaved between disparate styles and subject matter, but her photographs have nevertheless become barnacled with all manner of theoretical cant, which, rather than serving as a supplement to the work, has tended to obscure it; her photographs have drifted towards becoming objects that are read, instead of looked at. Of course, this is not to say that the various in-depth analyses of her work were grasping at phantoms. Those theorists who posited its relation to the kinds of critiques and deconstructions of image culture associated with Douglas Crimp’s 1977 exhibition ‘Pictures’ at Artists Space, New York, for instance, or those that positioned it resolutely within the broader project of feminism and felt it pushing back against the pernicious power of the male gaze were clearly onto something, despite Sherman’s well-known reticence to be hemmed in by such concretized readings. But perhaps, in this regard, Sherman was on to something too: as the novelty surrounding these initial stabs at a deep reading of her work waned, they left behind a hardened rhetorical residue that has simplistically determined understandings of her project ever since, and which has, especially in light of her soaring prices, taken on the tinny ring of marketing copy.

It is fortunate, then, that MoMA’s retrospective of Sherman’s work, which comprised 171 photographs made over more than 30 years, was able to provide a wider view of the subtlety and slipperiness of her intentions. In the exhibition, the requisite blockbuster works were, of course, on display in full force: the entirety of her canonical ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977–80), her initially controversial, unpublished Artforum ‘centerfolds’ (1981), a salon-hung grouping of her ‘history portraits’ (1988–90) and the recently lauded ‘society portraits’ (2008). (With the exception of the ‘Untitled Film Stills’, all of Sherman’s series and individual works lack titles, but the appellations for each series used here have gained common acceptance.) However, there were also smaller selections from almost all of her often more eccentric, somewhat lesser-known series: a cross-section of her years of off-kilter high-fashion commissions for designers like Comme des Garçons and Balenciaga, as well as Harper’s Bazaar; works from her horrific ‘sex pictures’ (1992) and ‘disasters’ series (1986–9), both of which were disappointingly under-represented; her darkly surreal, Grimm-like ‘fairy tales’ series; her pathetic, poignant ‘headshots’ (2000–02); her candy-coated ‘clowns’ series (2003–04); and one of her massive, enigmatic ‘murals’ (2010–ongoing). All of these works, with the exception of the majority of the photographs in the ‘sex pictures’ and the ‘disasters’ series, famously feature Sherman herself, shod in variously elaborate costumes, with her features often concealed or made caricature-like by layers upon layers of make-up and prostheses. However, claiming that the exhibition was ultimately a show of self-portraits would be just as reductive as trying to ram these works into the theoretical boxes delineated during her rise to fame in the early 1980s.

When Sherman dresses up for the camera, she is not explicitly trying on ideas (about feminism, image culture, or what have you), or leaving a trail of breadcrumbs leading to her innermost self. Rather, her role appears to be closer to that of a medium, channelling the characters that she portrays in order to transmit messages about the texture of our psychic lives in the form of emotional and atmospheric intensities. But in keeping with her abiding interest in the stagey and the ersatz, motifs that bind her photographs together perhaps even more strongly than her own presence in them, her messages are never transmitted without some kind of distantiating interference pattern, a wink that acknowledges that feigned seriousness is perhaps one of the few forms of seriousness that can still hold water. It is here, and not, as we have been led to believe, in worn-out deconstructions of our mediatized culture, that the legacy of Postmodernism most consistently touches Sherman’s work and, at the risk of propagating a reductive or programmatic view of the work myself, it must be pointed out that this form of veiled seriousness has a name: camp.
Camp is everywhere in Sherman’s work, from the B-movie histrionics of the characters in the ‘Untitled Film Stills’ and ‘centerfolds’, through the grindhouse-style gore and sex in her ‘disasters’ series and ‘sex pictures,’ to the ornate frames on her ‘society portraits’ which make the works appear ready to be ensconced above a roaring fire in an Upper East Side townhouse – which, presumably, some of them are. However, Sherman’s variety of camp is not the camp of Susan Sontag – all over-the-top style and no substance – but more that of John Waters, who defined the term pithily in a guest turn on The Simpsons as that which wavers between ‘the tragically ludicrous’ and ‘the ludicrously tragic’.

Not all of Sherman’s works offer us this degree of pathos-filled internal contradiction – I find that the ‘history portraits’, for instance, don’t rise far above the level of pastiche, despite being some of the most deftly executed works of her career – but those that do can be disarmingly powerful. Some of the most illustrative works in this regard are those that comprise her ‘head shots’ series, which crystallize some of the most essential features of her art despite the fact that they are certainly not the flashiest, or the most iconic, of her images. In them, Sherman channels a motley cast of second-string strivers with devastating acuity, painting their archetypical roles – the placid hippy, the wistful former beauty queen, the inhibited Midwestern house wife – in broad, campy strokes, but nevertheless allowing an often heartbreaking glint of humanity to shine through their familiar façades. This sting of truth behind Sherman’s artifice is the essential feature of all her work, the prime site of its seriousness, whose presence also serves to dethrone another reigning platitude concerning its intent, namely, that her peripatetic play-acting reflects the notion that identity is an endlessly malleable and constructible thing. In fact, Sherman seems to suggest just the opposite: that no matter how hard we strive to play the role of ourselves, we are doomed – tragically, ludicrously – to fail.

Chris Wiley is an artist, writer and contributing editor of frieze.