'Cindy Sherman' retrospective opens at SFMOMA
by Sura Wood
Will the real Cindy Sherman please stand up? If the controversial photographer, a chameleon whose gift for disguise and masquerade has made her an electrifying presence on the art scene, granted that request, it would defeat the point of a life's work that gives new meaning to role-playing. Over the last 30 years, employing herself as top model, she has pursued an interest in gender, conflicting female roles and how society sees, distorts and confines women; the grotesque and macabre; the fluidity of identity; fairy tales, clowns, fashion victims and the falseness of a medium that purportedly documents the truth. Cindy Sherman, a touring retrospective that originated at NY MoMA, is the artist's first museum exhibition in San Francisco. Arriving at SFMOMA last week with 155 photographs – 15 fewer than were in the New York show – it turns out that less is indeed more.
Sherman's explorations and aptitude for transformation (through the wonders of makeup, hair, wardrobe, prosthetics, wigs, staging, major-league attitude and, most recently, digital technology) are fascinating. Although her work deserves a full-on retrospective – the last one was 14 years ago – her imaginative images, rich in subtext, deliver greater intensity in small doses. In stand-alone photographs or in self-contained series, it's as if the subjects and the carefully constructed scenarios she devises for them are directed only at you, an audience of one. It's a difficult illusion to sustain when confronted with a large-scale show that introduces Sherman to visitors only vaguely acquainted with her, and fleshes out the scope of her accomplishments for those who know her better.
Combining Pop, Conceptual, performance art and cinema, she has distilled her own art form, one made no less original because she's grown influential and spawned a legion of imitators. Ah, the wages of success. Though she's inarguably a trailblazer, those imitators, coupled with the now-commonplace practice of adopting personas, means that her photographs don't seem as fresh, radical or transgressive as they did when she burst into public consciousness in the 1980s with Untitled Film Stills. In that breakthrough series of 70 grainy 8 ½ x 11" black & white pictures that resemble old publicity stills shot on studio back-lots, she personifies stock female types in fictionalized films recalling noir, Italian Neo-Realism and Hollywood movies of the 1950s and 60s. Striking an array of actressy poses, she's a femme fatale, a distressed housewife, a sultry European starlet casually lighting up a cigarette, a desperate woman leaning against a stone wall, an image reminiscent of Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica's Two Women, an ambitious career woman taking the city by storm in pillbox hat and pumps, and a wanton blonde goddess in sexy lingerie stretched out on a bed, etc. (The artist doesn't title her images, a choice that invites speculation by the viewer and doesn't fence her in. It may also account for the feverish debate triggered by her work and the reams of copy written about it.)
At the entry to the exhibition, the walls are papered with Sherman's recent project, 18-foot tall, floor-to-ceiling murals that suggest that bigger is not better. They provide an interesting counterpoint to the smaller black & white imagery from the mid-1970s and early 80s. That work, like the aforementioned Film Stills, and the multiple girlish images of herself, cut-out and lined up alongside each other in an all-Cindy chorus line, is comparatively free of artifice, created before she became as sophisticated technically, moved to color, and mastered the orchestration of increasingly complex scenes. Sherman's mind must be a very busy place.
Graphic, grotesque imagery from the 1980s & 90s is as startling as it is difficult to look at. In contrast to almost all of her photographs, she doesn't appear in these ferocious pictures of unvarnished rage which feature rotted food, entrails and torn, violated bodies. In one, a creature of indeterminate gender has legs cut off at mid-thigh, distended fake breasts, and a face mercilessly ravaged by age; in another, a penis, looking like a bloated hot dog, juts out from an unexpected source. While the latter series is sans Sherman, in the so-called History Portraits, made during a stint in Rome in 1989, her subjects are primarily male – or a daring female adept at impersonating men. In these wild, ingenious, very entertaining pictures, she pretends, with the aid of humor, fake noses, facial hair and prosthetics, to be sitters for Old Masters paintings by the likes of Titian, Holbein and Fragonard, among others. She also reenacts actual paintings like Caravaggio's "Sick Bacchus." Where the brawling Italian master once stood in for the god of wine, she appears in an ill-fitting tunic and a laurel wreath on her head as he (she?) grasps a cluster of grapes, appraising the viewer with a debauched, boozy stare.
Sherman reserves some of her strongest satiric ammunition for women trapped in societal stereotypes and prisons of their own making. Members of a group of middle-aged society ladies range from vanquished and imperious to downright hostile, oppressed by and angry at the indignities of aging and loss of status in a world that doesn't like to see its women betray signs of mortality. The inevitable decay is staved off by heavy makeup, vulgar jewelry, caftans, couture and hair coifed within an inch of its life. Exhibit A is a severe woman in a red silk dress clasping a fan to her waist like a weapon and armed with an expression that's more warning shot than greeting.
A natural hunting ground for Sherman is fashion, whose victims she parodies. Take the furious platinum blonde, slouching and naked under a tres serious navy blue man's overcoat, or the punky woman with nose rings and a chain tattoo circling her neck. Wearing grey-and-white-checked, gingham gloves, she aims a finger at the side of her head like a gun. Who can blame her? We've all been there. (Through October 8.)
Endnote: In conjunction with the show, Sherman has curated a two-month film series that reflects her taste for the eerie and bizarre. The program includes Suture, a stylized black & white murder mystery involving a plastic surgeon named Renee Descartes; Chris Marker's La Jetee, a surreal, post-apocalyptic tone poem; Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and John Frankenheimer's sci-fi/horror cautionary tale Seconds, which may be most memorable as the last and only film where Rock Hudson was actually good. (Thursdays @ 7 p.m. at the SFMOMA theater, through Aug. 30.)