Thursday, May 3, 2012

Disappearing Act: Cindy Sherman at MoMA

"Untitled #92" - Cindy Sherman, from Centerfolds, 1981, chromogenic color print

The Cindy Sherman retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, on view through June 11, surveys 35 years of work by a master of postmodern photography. Throughout her career, Sherman has steadily mined photographic portraiture for its feminist subversions of how we look and what we take for truth. Her pictures are performances: with the exception of two mid-career series, all of her photographs are portraits of herself in disguise, reflections on gender and stereotype, voyeurism and fantasy, in the era of Hollywood and mass culture. From her groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills, the series that launched her career in the late 1970s, to her 2008 society portraits, Sherman has distinguished herself as a kind of ventriloquist of image and identity, for whom popular and consumer culture are not the subject of her works but the raw material of her perpetual self-transformation.

Not all of this work is equally powerful. The Cindy Sherman of Untitled Film Stills quickly became a celebrity herself – and celebrity, so often the tipping point between the avant-garde and the status quo, seems to have dulled the sharp edge of Sherman’s aesthetic, as well as her social critique. The irony of the retrospective is precisely that it cashes in on the art world celebrity of an artist who became famous for her critique of popular culture. But Sherman has made herself an easy target for such irony. Her early work, singularly haunting and unshakeable, used photographic self-portraiture as a kind of disappearing act: she made herself so visible she disappeared into the work completely. After 1985, her work took on the sickly sheen of a magic trick performed self-consciously, one too many times. It grows cynical about illusion: the mechanism by which the trick was performed became the subject of the art.

"Untitled #81" from Untitled Film Stills, 1980
Organized by Associate Curator Eva Respini, Cindy Sherman is both chronological and thematic. The wall text is minimal – there is a single didactic panel for each gallery but no extended wall labels – allowing the focus to rest on the images and the visual relationships between them. This decision makes particular sense for Sherman, whose fixation on permutation and seriality within her work ensures that the photographs are commentaries on each other.

This is particularly true of Untitled Film Stills, the series of 69 invented film stills that Sherman created between 1977 and 1979 (she was 23 years old when she started), and one of the pleasures of the retrospective is the opportunity to see the series hung together in its entirety in one gallery. In eight-by-ten inch black-and-white photographs, glossy and deliberately grainy, Film Stills depicts Sherman posing as women both familiar and unidentifiable drawn up from the collective unconscious of popular visual culture. The title of the series emphasizes the quality of fantasy in these pictures: they are not portraits, though they contain elements of portraiture, but rather fragments of a larger fiction that remains elusive. They are studies in suspense, but also in narrative suspension. With Sherman taking on the role of model, set and costume designer, and photographer, the film stills resemble cinema in their production as well as their content and style. Here, Sherman works like a movie director, but each shot, with the charged dynamism of its visual semantics, begs to be read more like a poem.

Not only does Sherman re-invent herself wholly as a model from one picture to the next, transforming her appearance so completely that there is simply no glimpse of the “real” Sherman in the fault lines, but she also re-invents the sense of the person behind the camera, the voyeur who looks on. The woman in #81, wearing a white slip and tidying her long raven locks before a motel bathroom mirror, is shot at a slightly crooked angle from beyond the flimsy wood paneling of the wall and door – you sense that through the mirror she can glimpse the lover who glimpses her. The reclining bombshell in #34, splayed dreamily in a half-buttoned white blouse and panties upon the rivulets of black satin sheets, is posing for the camera. The blond in #1, turning suddenly, blurredly, as though someone has just called her name, is not. Some of these shots have the eerie sense of having been captured on a surveillance camera, or through a peephole. The presence of the voyeur sits heavily, like a shadow, over the scene, but as in a horror movie, the woman is terrifyingly unaware.

"Untitled #140" from Untitled Film Stills, 1985
The Centerfolds series, from 1981, is Sherman’s other masterpiece, and it is an even more provocative and damning study of voyeurism and fantasy. The series of twelve large horizontal color prints mirror the centerfolds of men’s erotic magazines. The reference to glossy magazines associates Centerfolds not only with male voyeurism and desire, but also with consumer culture and the way the sexualized female body is glossed as an advertisement for exploitation. If centerfolds supply the sexual fantasy of male dominance and female submission, then Sherman makes the violence and danger lurking not so deeply beneath the surface of desire shockingly explicit.

Being surrounded by these photographs in one gallery is a truly stupendous experience. I had seen several of them in person before, so I was aware of their scale and power, but the drama and counterpoint of the series as it encircles you is something else entirely. The intense, almost expressionistic color saturation and painterly luminosity of the photographs, paired with the excruciating vulnerability the pictures depict, makes the experience both tantalizing and deeply unsettling. If Untitled Film Stills is indebted to Hitchcock, that master of sensuality and suspense, then Centerfolds better resembles the work of Brian De Palma. Like the pornographic horror flick John Travolta engineers in Blow Out, made the same year as Centerfolds, these photographs infuse parody and camp with a real blood-curdling scream.

The retrospective features several outstanding examples of Sherman’s post-Centerfolds work. One gallery was devoted to fabulously garish and outsize color prints of unlikely fashionistas, with work extending from 1983 to 2011. My favorite of these is Untitled #119 (1983), a platinum blond dressed in sailor’s blue, with oversize anchor-shaped earrings draped in pearls, performing on some nightclub stage, either real or imagined. She looks like one of Reginald Marsh’s Depression-era dance hall sirens, but without their muscled independence or vampiric sexuality; lost in song, her painted mouth and her outstretched hands are both gaudily inviting and touchingly vulnerable. Another gallery featuring Sherman’s work on the fantastical includes a blue-lit portrait of a mythical beast, an unsettlingly human-looking creature with a pig-like snout, its sticky, bloodied face pressed to the earth and matted with dirt (Untitled #140, 1985). It has the feeling of a perverse fairy tale of bewitchment and metamorphosis crossed with the sorrow of classical tragedy. It’s a deeply haunting image – it stays with you.

"Untitled #225" - History portrait, 1990
Subversion is not an easy mode to sustain over a 35-year career. An interview with the photographer and filmmaker John Waters included in the exhibition catalog reveals that as soon as Sherman felt her work was becoming too domesticated by the public she tried to do something outrageous. You have to admire the impulse. But the more overtly grotesque her work, the less titillating I find it. While Untitled Film Stills allows you to indulge in the fantasy of the movies, that these impossibly and blissfully sensual women could awake out of the photograph and notice you watching, Sherman’s work after 1985 draws attention to the prosthetic stiffness of her disguises. The most recent series of aging divas, from 2008, is both literal and hyperbolic, more like loosely imagined social commentary than fully achieved original work. The history portraits from the 1990s, her parodies of European portraiture of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, have a juvenile cleverness. The emphasis is on the mechanics rather than the mystique of performance, and so the work is all semantics and no psychology. Admittedly, in her later work, particularly the society portraits, Sherman has to contend with the reality of an aging body. She isn’t 23 anymore. Yet this is beside the point: the problem isn’t that Sherman loses interest in beguiling female beauty, it’s that she loses interest in the capacity of the image to beguile.

When Sherman tries to defuse the seductive power of her images, she also disarms their political significance. In 1974, Martha Wilson created her “Portfolio of Models,” a series of six photographs of the artist posing as “the models society holds out to me” (among them “the goddess,” “the working girl,” “the earth mother,” “the lesbian”). Sherman took Wilson’s models to new and unsettling territory that blasted the plaintive and edifying tone of so much feminist art. Untitled Film Stills and Centerfolds showed that if there is nothing outside the text (as the postmodern creed goes), and culture prescribes identity, then we are always living a hybrid experience, living, in a sense, in fantasy. And Sherman found the danger, as much existential as social, at the core of these fantasies. The depth of her best work so transcends that of Wilson’s models because the photographs play on our unquenchable desire to look, because they insist that the menacing lens through which we can’t help but see the world also provides exquisite, if complex, pleasure. If it doesn’t, where’s the tension? We could just opt out of looking.

When Cindy Sherman became an art world superstar, there was no chance viewers (and buyers, and curators) would stop looking. In those terms, Sherman can’t make mistakes anymore, and so there are no real risks. Maybe the awful security of her fame acted as an anesthetic in the work. The sense you get from much of the retrospective is that Cindy Sherman begins to perform Cindy Sherman. She can’t carry the illusion of disappearance through: she finally gets caught by her own camera.

Amanda Shubert is a founding editor of Full Stop, an online journal of literature and culture. She works at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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