First posts were made exactly ten years ago (and what a strange day I chose to start this – it’s Portugal’s national day…). As I go through those first years, I realize I never once addressed Cindy Sherman’s photographs, which is surprising, for at the time she was an inspiration. The other day, while in class, I stumbled upon the Untitled Film Stills (the black & white part from the 70’s) and I choked. I wanted to tell students why that project is of historical relevance, but every word that came out of my mouth was unfelt. This sounds harsh, but the truth is I was reproducing a discourse I’d often heard and at the same time realizing I no longer felt that way about her photographs. So from that moment on I’ve been thinking about her work, trying to make sense of my relation to it.
The description found on Moma’s website matches the one I was trying to convey to students, regarding the photos from the 70’s, and I guess there’s no need to add to it in order to “justify” the projects’ historical relevance.
The Untitled Film Stills proved Cindy Sherman is a master at several things:
- as a consumer and observer, she is very attentive and aware of the repercussion of images in our collective imagination, creating archetypes of an era;
- as an image-maker, she is extremely accurate in the way she appropriates that invisible side of things, meaning: the unseen lives of images, as they enter circulation;
- as a photographer, she uses technique in an exemplar way, making each composition retain the traces of its references;
- as an artist, she seems play with her artistic freedom, so the images do point towards different directions: some are more playful, others almost gore, some more autonomous than others, some colorful and textured, some more slick and restrained, etc.
So why did I choke? Cindy Sherman was very relevant to me at some point. She is a master at staging and dressing-up, understanding how to bring the viewer into her compositions. I learned a lot from watching her images and I remember when I first saw some of the Untitled Film Stills at a museum. It had an impact on me. My work has always been about the feminine, so her exploration of the gender stereotypes and the male gaze was also very relevant, and I think still is. So what then?
At some point I stopped being interested in her work. It’s a chronological thing, I now realize. From the mid 80’s on her photographs became (too much?) about the fake aspect of the representations she was addressing. I feel those photographs then started to suffer because of the archetypal she chose to explore and repeat (until exhaustion, I’d like to add).
The part absurdity plays on her representations seems to be the ultimate thing pushing me away. I experience nothing beyond the critic of the fake and the ridicule. Only recently have I started to come across critics that seem to touch on that aspect, mainly regarding her work from 2000 on. There’s probably lots of circumstantial reasons for this less eulogistic critic, but I’ll name just a few:
- Sherman keeps repeating her formula and that draws attention to the strategy instead of the overall body of work;
- critics get bored when everyone is saying the same, so a provocative discourse started to appear;
- feminism has changed and, it that, the understanding of Sherman as feminist as well.
I fail to understand why Sherman insists on the self-portrait. Is she trapped inside her own formula? Is she afraid to experiment? Maybe she doesn’t give a fuck, because the institutions have guaranteed her a lifelong place in their gallery walls. The photographs bellow are the further she goes from doing portraiture but she always insists on doing it the kitsch way, exaggerating with the elements and so on. Everything must be fake and superficial in order to question those layers?
About the clown pictures, from 2004, Barbara A. MacAdam writes the following: “The extraordinary thing is the way we are forced to suspend our disbelief twice, to look beyond Sherman the artist performing other characters, and then beyond the clowns playing actors. Instead of serial shots as in a film, or in the evolving characters at once before our eyes, impersonating herself impersonating a clown, impersonating an actor playing a role.” I see, in fact, an extraordinary thing: not that these images suggest a very layered construction about playing a role, but instead, that it’s extraordinary how ugly these pictures are and how constrained they are by their own ugliness. That could be a singular, exemplar trait, if not for the repetition of the strategy as a stylistic discovery on how to give expression to mockery.
About the over-the-hill matrons, (c.2008), Jed Perel writes the following, in the context of Sherman’s retrospect at Moma: “[W]hen Sherman is dressing up as various wealthy, over-the-hill matrons with too much cosmetic surgery and makeup and jewels, a wall text describes the photographs as reveal[ing] a dark reality lurking beneath the glossy surface of perfection. The only way to take a sentence like that is as high camp.” Couldn’t agree more (even though I don’t follow his approach on the rest of the critic. Is there any point in adding a critical layer that the viewer is unable to encounter in the works themselves? That series of portraits is, once again, erected on an idea that representation and, in this case, photographic representation, could highlight the absurdity of the stereotypes and the commercial circulation of images where women, in particular, and people, in general, are pictured as political icons.
About Sherman’s representation of white women, Eric Wane writes (in the context of a defense of Sherman’s Bus Rider series, from 1976): “White women are her primary targets, and she attacks/deconstructs them mercilessly. Every one of those images is highly offensive if one sees them as attempts to define, rather than, say, subvert, fixed stereotypical identities.” But the thing is although everyone can recognize her intentions – to question the stereotypes, by exposing the ridicule – in the end the photographs are aesthetically offensive: they are all about appropriation, leaving no room for singularity, they are caricatures constructed upon popular mechanisms of representation (saturation, hyper-realism, megalomania, repetition, etc.).
About the author’s overall body of work, Ciara Moloney writes, again regarding Sherman’s retrospective: “[A]fter experiencing several series in which the work offers up the same insights every time, the photographs themselves begin to feel simplistic; yes, women strive to embody impossible standards of beauty; yes, we all adapt our clothing and hairstyles to signify different aspects of our identity. But what else?” Yes, what else? Imitation, caricature, repetition, multiplicity, etc, they can all be transformative, opening the work to a subjective reception, but has Sherman mastered this?
What we know for sure is that her theatrical self-portrait is exemplar. It so is that we recognize it in several contemporary photographs. Samuel Fosso’s work is the first example that comes to mind. He’s just won the PhotoEspaña award and the rhetoric that accompanies his work is no different from that which serves the first part of Sherman’s film stills, stating that by recreating the archetypes (in his case stereotypes that go back to the idea of “the african”, etc.) he subverts them. Playing with details that make things memorable and then iconic (politically, ideologically, etc.) is a successful strategy. Both Sherman and Fosso recognize it. They also investigate the original periods that promote such stereotypes, thus conferring a sort of formal authenticity to the works.
In Ted Mooney‘s Cindy Sherman: An Invention for Two Voices, the author creates a fictional conversation with Sherman (or Sherman’s characters), screening in that dialogue the archetypes that also inspire Sherman’s work. I can’t help but think that Mooney’s playful conversation is nothing short of brilliant, in the sense that his caricature also signals the dangers of stereotyping ad nausea. Here are some excerpts of that fake dialogue:
Note: In June a decade will have passed since I first started Nihilsentimentalgia, so for the next few months I will be revisiting some of my early posts, which were poorly done.