As part of the pre-work for Informing Contexts in the MA program, we were asked to look at Cindy Sherman’s work, and answer 8 questions.
I think that the first time we saw any of Sherman’s work in a gallery was in 1982, when she was 28. Ingrid and I went to most of the shows at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Cindy Sherman had a solo show. I suspect we both saw the images as ‘self portraits in different guises’, rather than reading too much into them. Most of the work was the ‘Film Stills‘, though colour had started to make an appearance in her images. ‘Film Stills‘ borrowed heavily from photographic ‘language’ (if there is such a thing) of the movie business, which actually helps the viewer to ‘see’ what Sherman is intending with the image. In an interview with Els Barents in the catalogue for the 1982 show, Sherman explains:
‘The black-and-white photographs were more fun to do. I think they were easy partly because throughout my childhood I had stored up so many images of role models. It was real easy to think of a different one in every scene. But they were so cliché that after three years I couldn’t do them anymore. I was really thinking about movies, the characters are almost typecast from the movies. For the woman standing in front of my studio door (Untitled film Still #35), I was thinking of a film with Sophia Loren called ‘Two Women’. She plays this Italian peasant. Her husband is killed and she and her daughter are both raped. She is this tough strong woman, but all beaten-up and dirty. I liked that combination of Sophia Loren looking very dirty and very strong. So that’s what l as thinking of.
Cindy Sherman. 1979. Untitled Film Still #35. MoMA.
Rosalind Krauss makes the comment that Sherman’s work is a simulacrum – yet even though the artist made sure the very smallest details were ‘accurate’ for the time and role portrayed, her work was a copy without actually having an original. (1993).
I was painting at the time, and most exhibitions we saw had conceptual themes. It was also unusual to see a photography show within a mainstream art museum, although the Stedelijk already had a great reputation for the newest and most important trends in art. Sherman was in Documenta at Kassel the same year. It is perhaps not surprising that, following almost universal critical praise early in her career, Sherman became one of most famous female artists at work today.
Sherman’s untitled statement written for Kassel Documenta, 1982, is insightful
‘I want that choked-up feeling in your throat which maybe comes from despair or terry-eyed sentimentality: conveying intangible emotions.
A Photograph should transcend itself, the image in its medium, in order to have its own presence.
These are pictures of emotions personified, entirely of themselves with their own presence – not of me. The issue of the identity of the model is no more interesting than the possible symbolism of any other detail.
When I prepare each character I have to consider what I’m working against, that people are going to look under the make-up and wigs for that common denominator, the recognizable. I’m trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me.
I have this enormous fear of being mis-interpreted, of people thinking the photos are about that l’m really vain and narcissistic. Then sometimes I wonder how it is I’m fooling so many people. I’m doing one of the most stupid things in the world which I can’t even explain, dressing up like a child and posing in front of a camera trying to make beautiful pictures. And people seem to fall for it. (My instincts tell me it must not be very challenging then.). (Sherman, 1982).
Believing in one’s own art becomes harder and harder when the public response grows.(In Stiles et al, 2012: 926-7)
In essence, she wants the pictures to be more about the audience than about her, even though they clearly (and indexically) portray her
From my earliest memories of Sherman’s work, I thus had it pigeonholed as ‘conceptual photographic art’.
Conceptual photography is ‘post modern’ in the sense that it moves past the photograph as a indexical document, which follow some set of ‘rules of quality’ and so delivers a reproducible version of reality. Modern(ist) art was (and still is) largely an attempt to get at new truths, often by exploring form, technique and process rather than examining the subject per se. That said, it is clear that Sherman is drawing heavily from more traditional registers of portraiture (e.g. the movies and its stylistic tropes) in making her early photographs.
Post-modernism attempts to make photographs an eclectic art form that can challenges attempt to describe reality – embracing complexity – and using practical experience of both photographer and viewer to create new meanings. In its strictest form, the meaning is left up to the viewer to decide. Much post-modernist work is executed with irony and subversion.
Her work has appeared in all kinds of shows, since, and she continually reinvents herself and her work. However, frankly (perhaps because of its ubiquity) I hadn’t really thought too much about the critical implications of Sherman’s work until I did a MoMA program, Seeing through Photographs, in 2016.
As part of that program, Eva Respini’s curatorial introduction to MoMA’s 2011 solo show opened my eyes to the many depths in Sherman’s work, including her use of props and mannequins.
Most books on photography tend to focus on Sherman’s early ‘Film Stills‘ work, as being both iconic and historically significant. I think that the MoMa show really opened up my personal view of Sherman’s work as iconoclastic, rather than iconic. She dips into history, social themes, personal fears almost on a whim. And yet her photography still remains very much ‘hers’. There is always mystery, and a sense of both conscious self-reference and vulnerable self-deprecation in any series that she creates, a paradox in its complexity.
This quote, from the Broad Gallery in Los Angeles, which has the largest collection of Sherman’s work, seems to sum up her work quite well.
‘At the heart of Sherman’s work is the multitude of identity stereotypes that have arisen throughout both the history of art and the history of advertising, cinema, and media. … For this reason, many critics have praised Sherman’s deconstruction of overtly masculine visions of the female in the history of art’. (Broad Gallery, 2016).
Turning now to the questions we were asked:
- How do you feel about Sherman’s inclusive and anti-intentional approach to producing work?
I cannot see how her work can be considered anti-intentional, as every image is very carefully constructed, technically and conceptually. She also stated her intentions with respect to the audience in the Kassel document. Yet, at the same time all of her work is ‘Untitled’, and she clearly leaves the final decisions on meaning to the audience.
Untitled #21 is crafted to suggest a movie still – the lighting, angle of the head, the gaze away from the viewer, the setting, clothes and so on. This is fully intentional. But what actually ‘is’ the story? That is unknown.
Cindy Sherman. 1978. Untitled Film Still #21. MoMA.
Sherman has consistently created images of stereotypes aimed to draw in a viewer’s gaze and challenge them to ask questions of the image. Yet there rarely appears to be an overt narrative that Sherman wants the viewer to take out of an individual image – so it is more an overall impression of intent. Sherman herself noted, in an interview with Paul Taylor Interview, in 1989:
‘Other people see my work as pictures of myself. I don’t. They’re not self-portraits’. (Taylor interview, 1989).
And in Judy Rumbold’s Guardian Interview, Sherman went on to say that:
‘People assume that a self-portrait is narcissistic and you’re trying to reveal something about yourself; fantasies or autobiographical information. In fact none of my work is about me or my private life’. (Rumbold interview, 1991).
So, if they are not self-portraits, what are they?
The mirror is turned on the viewer, not on the subject, with the intention of causing some kind of reflective process. Again, intentional, yet mystery is always her friend. Meagher notes that Sherman ‘paints on her character’, but then leaves it to the viewer to decide on what the character actually ‘means’. Sherman is as much a performance artist as a photographer, which goes a long way to explain her very early ‘acceptance’ into the ‘fine art’ world.
Cindy Sherman. 1981. Untitled #82. MoMA.
Back to her interview with Els Barents, Sherman noted how her work was changing in the early 80s:
And then the more l had done, I guess the more /developed my own ideas of what types of women I thought would be more interesting than the stereotypes. I realized I had to become more specific in details, because that’s what makes a person different from other people. Especially details that may seem insignificant, like a scrap of paper or the kind of curtain used. l also just started working closer and closer fo the figure, because I was less interested in using locations. I wanted to imply an environment with as little as possible. In the corner of the picture, there would be a little piece of floor. That’s all the floor you saw, and there would be a little piece of something else that gave you another idea of what people have around them’.
On the debate in the arts between intention and anti-intention, Larry Lavender concluded that both ‘sides’ are right and wrong.
‘Intentionalist theorists are right when they argue for the potential relevance to interpretation of information about an artist’s intentions. … Intentionalists are wrong, however, when they equate work-meaning and artist-meaning, because inquiry into the artist’s motives or reasons for making a work is no substitute for aesthetic inquiry into the work itself.
Similarly, anti- intentionalists are right when they insist upon the primacy of inquiry into the work itself, but err when they discount the potential value of artists’ intentions to the effort of gaining a more complete understanding of the work.
The error on both sides, of course, begins with the notion that a work has one fixed, stable, determinate meaning, and that there is but one way to find it’. (Lavender, 1997).
So, in Sherman’s work, exactly what that reflection might be is up to the viewer. She is providing an intention-laden starting point. But then, it is over to the audience – are they looking for thrills, a feminist agenda, a story, a political statement, eroticism, a lens into Sherman’s private life?
Who knows, other than the viewer?
Sherman said, in the Bomb Interview:
‘I think people are more apt to believe photographs, especially if it’s something fantastic. They’re willing to be more gullible. Sometimes they want fantasy. Even if they know it’s fake they can believe anything. People are accustomed to being told what to believe in’. (Bond, 1985).
Cindy Sherman. 2004. Untitled #421 – Clowns Series. The Broad.
She is using constructed (and increasingly fantastic) photographs to open up viewer fantasies. Yet she is always being ‘inclusive’, in the sense that she is enrolling the viewer (in fact demanding of the viewer) in the deciphering of her images.
Many interpretations of her work are thus possible. And I would submit that is exactly Sherman’s intention (pardon the pun).
- Do you feel that Sherman is successful in this regard?
- Do you give your viewers openness of interpretation of your work?
In my mainstream documentary work, I try not to leave the interpretation by the viewer too open, stressing the indexicality of the images. But I do want it to challenge and provide food for thought.
- How do the curators of the Brisbane Exhibition theoretically position Sherman’s work?
As a conceptual artist, exploring ageing and stereotypes in the context of those days gone by when female actors led the Hollywood earning stakes. They also stress the role of the viewer in the interpretation of Sherman’s work.
- How do you respond to this practice being shown in a gallery context and how is the intent of the work achieved through its presentation?
I have a suspicion that Sherman’s work is at its best when viewed in a gallery. Books just do not do justice to the scale of her work, or the scale of her ambition. In a gallery setting, each image demands attention, in ways that flicking the pages of a book so not.
- Are there any paradoxes?
I can see several, so I will focus on two. First, the temptation to view many of Sherman’s images as erotic or even pornographic.
In fact, Judith Williamson, in Images of Woman, notes:
‘In so many of Sherman’s images, simply the distress or passivity of the women figures feels faintly pornographic – I say that to be descriptive rather than pejorative. I feel Sherman simply brings to the surface very clearly that same whiff of the pornographic that I personally feel about so many of Hitchcock’s heroines, frightened, blonde and vulnerable … And in linking the erotic and the vulnerable she has hit a raw nerve of ‘femininity’. (Williamson, 1983).
Cindy Sherman. 1981. Untitled #89. The Broad.
Untitled #89 begs questions about what has happened … she is clearly in a vulnerable state, and later stated that was her intention. But, vulnerable in what way? Sexually available – or the victim of rape? Again, her images, once constructed, leave such interpretation open.
Personally, I find very little of Sherman’s work erotic. There always seems a distance and a level of objectivity which prevents a full-on rush into sexuality. And her use of mannequin parts in constructed scenes (the ‘Sex Pictures‘) is surprisingly asexual – clinical even.
Cindy Sherman. 1997. Untitled #263. The Broad.
The other paradox is her engagement with commercialism. By all accounts, and especially in her early years, Sherman was shy and retiring. She also noted more than once that her success, as a female artist, created tensions in her relationships with (less successful) male artists.
Yet she has consistently accepted high profile, commercial assignments, such as for Commes des Garçons in 1994. Sherman remains unrecognisable in the images, even as she pokes a little fun at the overuse of makeup, and by implication the response that people have to such overuse.
Cindy Sherman. 1994. Commes des Garçon campaign. Dazed.
And in 2011, the M.A.C campaign, as pictured in the header has this same duality – selling a product whilst quietly also making fun of it.
Cindy Sherman. 2011. M.A.C. campaign. Time Magazine.
Yet Sherman never seems to fall foul of the ‘capitalist crassness’ of Richard Prince (ironically, an ex lover), even though she has one of the most successful careers of all modern photographers. In 2011, ‘Untitled #96‘ (1981) passed all records for photography, and was sold for $3.89 million. That record has subsequently been beaten, including by Prince.
In #96, Sherman is cast as an adolescent girl, lying on the floor. The image is from the ‘Centerfolds‘ series – reminiscent of pornographic spreads in magazines. She is vulnerable, and openly inviting the gaze of the viewer.
Cindy Sherman. 1981. Untitled #96. MoMA,
I find Sherman’s approach to the fine art and commercial worlds quite liberating. It is good to see that an obviously ‘serious’ artist can embrace the commercial – and vice versa – without loosing her artistic integrity.
- Do you consider Sherman’s work to be feminist?
No, I do not, although I do see her as socially aware and concerned with stereotyping. There is a distinction between exploring femininity, questions of self-image, and challenging the male gaze (which is what Sherman does) and a pro-active feminist agenda. Betsy Berne, in her 2003 interview for the Tate with Sherman, noted that she said: ‘I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff‘.
‘I don’t think Sherman is a feminist artist or a non-feminist artist. I don’t think it really matters if she has set out to be either’.
‘What Sherman does is to make you see the type of ‘woman’, of femininity, as inseparable from the literal presentation of the image-lighting, contrast, composition, photographic style. … I want to say yah boo sucks to any man standing next to me looking at the photos in the exhibition. Because the viewer is forced into complicity with the way these ‘women’ are constructed: you recognise the styles, the ‘films’, the ‘stars’, and at that moment when you recognise the picture, your reading is the picture’. (Williamson, 1983).
As a male observer, I find her body of work accessible without being overtly political. It is always thought provoking, yet, oddly, rarely seems to take a pre-determinded position. As I wrote above, Sherman’s work is intentional yet seems always open to the intentions of the audience.
Perhaps her use of images only, without accompanying words (everything ‘untitled’) adds to that sense of political disengagement.
Whilst feminist theory (in its most strict sense) focuses on gender inequality, and the political, social and economic actions to be taken arising from such analysis, I see little of that in Sherman’s work. She seems content to be a character playing a role, becoming a subject of both male and female gaze – and then leaving it to the audience to draw its own implications.
Whilst drawing from the popular conceptions of the role (and look) and women in the arts and in commercial advertising, Sherman’s work and messaging seems almost subliminal when contrasted with the overt work of such artists as The Guerrilla Girls.
Guerrilla Girls. 1989.
Since 1984 this group has been exposing sexual discrimination in the world of the arts. Their use of text, like Barbara Kruger, underlines their specific, political intent.
From a personal and subjective viewpoint, I find Sherman’s work more persuasive – so perhaps, after all, she is a succesful feminist activist?
- Do you invite critical and theoretical lenses in your work and are there multiple readings?
As noted above, yes, I am attempting to do that in my most recent ‘negatives’ work. But my documentary practice to date has been rooted in modernism, indexicality – not at all like Shermans oeuvre – in that I am focused on telling other people’s stories.
I have also been rather focused on craft. In that, I do not see a distinction between modernist and post-modernist practices. Sherman’s work is always beautifully and almost lovingly crafted.
Header: Cindy Sherman. 2011. Fall Colour Look #1 M.A.C. Cosmetics
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