Wednesday 22 January 2014

Cindy Sherman - 2

Cindy Sherman - A Retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
We saw this exhibition in New York in April 2012.  This is the second post on this vast exhibition that spanned the majority of Sherman's working life - you can see the first post here .
Even though Cindy Sherman always photographs herself, her photographs are not self-portraits, but rather an investigation of contemporary identity and the nature of representation. In her photographs she reveals and critiques the artifice of identity and how photography is complicit in its making. Through the variety of characters and scenarios that she employs she addresses the anxieties of the self in our society by projecting personas and stereotypes that are deep seated in our shared cultural imagination. Her work reveals how surface appearances and the fleeting images that we are bombarded with are often mistaken for content and depth.
Sherman insists that she is not a photographer but instead, an artist who uses photography. She is concerned with the way photography has shaped our world, particularly in the construction of female identity. She presents female identity as masquerade, and consequently places herself in the centre of postmodern discussion on the nature of femininity, defining Woman as a construct that depends, for social, political and erotic reasons, upon masks and masquerade. The woman who is constructed by culture, is according to Joan Riviere, already an impersonation. Womanliness is mimicry, it is masquerade. Gender exists only in representation. 

The Centrefolds (1981):
The Centrefolds are send-ups of men's erotic magazine centrefolds, depicting a variety of young women, mostly in supine positions, photographed close up and cropped so that they seem compressed into the frame. In many of the pictures the women are in a state of reverie of day-dreaming, staring outside the picture frame. The characters are in extreme emotional states, ranging from terrified
to melancholic
Sherman plays into the male conditioning of looking at photographs of women, but she takes on the roles of both male photographer and female pinup. They are the antithesis of what a viewer expects to see in a centrefold. 


Fashion photographs:

Sherman's photographs for her first fashion commission for a New York boutique are parodies of fashion photography combining elements of slapstick humour and theatricality. Rather than projecting glamour, sex or wealth, they feature characters that are far from desirable : they are goofy, angry, challenging conventional notions of beauty and grace. These are powerful and strong women and the characters have an eccentric almost gothic quality. 'I'm disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful. I'm much more fascinated with the other side... I was trying to make fun of fashion'.

Her next commission was for Vogue: 'This is going to be in French Vogue. I've really got to do something to rip open the French fashion world. I so wanted to make really ugly pictures... The first couple of pictures I shot they didn't like at all... That inspired even more depressing, bloody, ugly characters'. The characters have bloodshot eyes, bruises, and unflattering pancake makeup  with a suggestion of implicit violence, but the clothes are luxurious and expensive.

When Harper's Bazaar and Comme des Garcons hired Sherman, they were embracing her challenge to the conventions of high fashion and beauty and were acknowledging that their own clothes and media influence were complicit in the masquerade of fashion. The ideas of the postmodernists were now co-opted by the very media they were commenting on.


# 122







The Fairy Tale Series (1985):
Jewel-like colours and menacing visions, encompassing a nightmarish perspective on the world - something that becomes increasingly pronounced in Sherman's work in the years to follow. With the Fairy Tales she introduced prosthetic parts as a stand-in for the human body, a practice that would soon replace the figure altogether.



Disasters (1986-89)
In this series she continued with the themes and motifs explored in the Fairy Tales: mutilated body parts, blow-up dolls, rotting food and substances that look like vomit, faeces and blood. 'I wanted something visually offensive but seductive, beautiful, and texture as well, to suck you in and then repulse you'.  These grotesque works marked a turn away from the representation of women. 'I'm pretty disgusted with the art world in general. The boy artists, the boy painters, the collectors, the crawl, the climb, and stabbing each other to the top sort of competition. I don't know why that work would come out from those feelings, but I think I wanted to make something that I couldn't imagine anybody buying'.



The sex pictures (1992):
Sherman wanted to make explicit pictures but was not interested in photographing herself nude, so she used dolls bought from medical supply catalogues, arranged them to simulate sex acts and mimic hard-core pornography, and photographed them, sometimes in extreme and disorienting close-up - a mix of female and male that evoked the crossbreeds from the fairy tales.
Mannequins and sex dolls are usually idealised versions of women's bodies with unrealistic proportions and Sherman's use of medical dolls with gaping orifices and her mix of female and male parts

challenge fetishized female sexuality. She forces viewers to confront their own preconceived ideas about sex, pornography and erotic images. 'They were a refusal to make a sexy image about sex' she argues. 'I never wanted to do that. Nudity can be a cop out. That is why I use fake tits and asses, to avoid sensationalisms, which I wanted to subvert'.
The sex pictures are distinctly unerotic. While the scenarios are pornographic, the bodies themselves are sterile and medical, and they simply mimic erotic poses and acts. They make one keenly aware of the cycle of fetishism and voyeurism on which pornography thrives. 'I got the feeling at the opening and at the other times I would walk into the gallery that people would look around and quickly leave. I think someone told me that they couldn't stay in the gallery very long... I think the show made people very uncomfortable'.
At one level, the sex pictures were Sherman's response to Jeff Koon's paintings of himself having sex with his wife, a former porn star also known as Cicciolina. 'The censorship issue is important... I felt that my previous show was so commercially successful that it made sense to go out on a limb in these difficult times. I thought I might as well really try to pull out all the stops and just make something that directly deals with sexuality and censorship without compromising my values'.
Her sex pictures reflect a fear of the body and suggest the degeneration and dehumanisation of sexual desire. Her photographs are also a critique of the Surrealists who engaged a fantastical dismemberment of the female body.



Uncomfortable viewing indeed.

 Cindy Sherman: Johanna Burton, John Waters, MOMA.

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