Cindy Sherman’s retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art just closed. It consisted of over 170 works that spanned over 30 years and included rarely seen early pieces from 1974-5 when she was a mere 20-21 year old and also newer works from more recent years. The show is extensive, thorough and very complete. There is not much to say about the show really though, it is exactly what you think it will/should be and meeting those expectations makes deep reflection seem beside the point. There were exhibition highlights for sure though, to be able to see the full suite of her seminal Untitled Film Stills from 1977-1980 was very nice indeed and to see a very early piece from 1974 of her transforming her be-speckled tomboy self to a kabuki silent movie starlet clown was just fantastic. But overall this show is not so much about a reveal or a revelation, but more about the consistency of a practice and more importantly it makes one think why is Cindy Sherman, “Cindy Sherman?” What makes her photographs and her so essentially successful in both influence and economies?
First, “commitment to a bit,” Sherman has this down pat. This is not meant to be disparaging but an assessment of how prolific and consistent she is with her work. For those that do not know Sherman’s work, it is essentially her taking photographs of herself, (or objects as stand ins on some occasions) and she transforms/alters/disguises herself to be a variety of characters (mostly female) to reflect/highlight/throw back the vulgarity/humor/ archetypes of society. Although there is a traceable linage from series to series, which is markedly emphasized in the show, this doesn’t result in dullness. Sherman is too clever by half and the ways in which she undertakes and presents her transformations is an odd type of magic, a slight of hand that reveals the seams but possesses an unknowable but distinct touch. The formula of how she works at first glance seems obvious but there is such an intense rigor, a lack of shortcuts or flippancy that ensures each image, each series, has weight and import.
Next, Sherman is a not/not feminist artist. Anyone with half a brain and one eye open can see that Sherman’s work is most certainly coming from feminist lineage and investigative practices but what is brilliant/tragic about the whole thing is that she is not a quote unquote ‘feminist artist.’ It’s all very confusing yes, but basically anyone who is overt in saying/framing/discussing/pushing the idea that their work is feminist is quickly ducked taped hand and feet, put into a trunk and dumped into a far away art ghetto. Yes, things today are a bit better but the time when Sherman started making her work, the less one had to say in this regard the better. Instead, Sherman became absent in these dialogues and let the work speak for itself and didn’t throw in the towel or argue in self-defense when others spoke on behalf of her or her work. This is something that will empower any artist. Artists make the work, it’s not their obligation to also unravel and historicize it as well. Leave this to the academics, writers and everyone else who is a bad/failed/want-to-be artist. I have heard Sherman being referred to as a cipher, like a black hole or a polite head-nodding mute. I think that is unfair, but it does have a sting of truth. All women are granted a certain type of power in the eyes of society when they say nothing. Whether that is good or bad is not to be dissected here, but how to manipulate this is key to Sherman’s success both then and now.
Lastly, Sherman is a mimic. Sherman makes the most obvious sort of work but the impulses and familiarity of those impulses makes them personalized for all who see it. The device of mimicry is a powerful tool and is still heavily used by contemporary female artists today. She is also playing dress up in a contained and private way but she also shares the mirrored gaze. The idea of voyeurism is wiped out because of this. There is nothing real going on, it is all imagination, she is a prop, and that in itself makes the role of the artist, the idea of ‘who is Cindy Sherman?’ so fraught, so vague and so curious. We all mimic, it is a socializing tool that is overtly practiced when we are children but the older, more socialized we become, the more called out and discouraged this practice is. The mimic is not an authentic self and those that are not behaving like their authentic selves are seen as weak, inferior or deceitful. The mimic in truth though has the power of possibility and of alteration. People who are actors or performers are explicit in their intensions, they are letting you in on their actions and this knowledge makes both the performer and the viewer safe in understanding what is going on. The mimic on the other hand does not tell or reveal what it is they are doing or for what purposes they are doing it for. This leaves an opening for things to get weird, feel uncomfortable and to challenge the safety of expectations. Sherman’s type of mimicry does this very thing, it is at times humorous, odd, aggressive, sick, bizarre, but throughout it straddles the known and unknown and it makes a mess of things and it makes you even more confused about what you think you are seeing.
There are many more reasons why Sherman is such a phenomenal success and influencer but love her or leave her she is the most significant photographer in our contemporary age. This isn’t about besting, but the reality of it is that what she is doing, and has been doing, with the medium of photography is at once classicist and also extremely groundbreaking. Sherman is not redefining, challenging, or usurping the medium but is using it as a tool that best works with her ideas and this is turn clicks on the conversations of so many other ideas and issues. Cindy Sherman is at times frustrating in her normalcy, but it is this unexaggerated sense of intension and practice that makes her so damn appealing and so very successful.