A mistress of disguise and dramatic personae, Cindy Sherman’s photography is internationally known for challenging gender constructs and shattering the illusion of appearance. In her review, Charlie Evans-Flagg appreciates the enduring profundity of Sherman’s oeuvre.
The photographic work of American artist Cindy Sherman (1954) focuses on – though is not limited to – issues of womanhood, the self and aesthetics as explored through the creation of innumerable characters and caricatures. Gaining recognition after graduating from Buffalo State College in 1977, her series Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) mimicked the tropes of film noir and B movie heroines from the 50s and 60s. It was this series that served as a catalyst for Sherman’s extensive career and her characteristic approach of adopting a plethora of disguises and personae to provocatively deconstruct the falsity of appearances. The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition brings together some of Sherman’s most well-known images alongside lesser seen works. Each room is dedicated to one or more series and ranges from earlier works like Rear Screen Projections (1980-1), Centrefolds (1980s) and Untitled Film Stills (never seen in the UK until now), through to later collections such as History Portraits (1988-90), Fairy Tales (1985-9), Sex Pictures (1990s), Masks (mid-1990s), Clowns (early 2000s) and the more recent Society Portraits (2008).
The turning point in Sherman’s career was surely the Untitled Film Stills series. In these black and white works Sherman laid out the early tenets of her practise, adopting and appropriating aesthetic signifiers through elements of disguise, in order to highlight the superficiality of appearance. Film Stills sees Sherman re-appropriate tropes from 50s and 60s film noir: moody poses and expressions, elegant wigs, accessories and damsel-in-distress disguises are all used to full effect. Many of the photographs in the series underscore the monotony of the heroine stereotype employed in the film noir genre, and whilst the disguises differ, their message remains the same. A later collection of images, entitled Centrefolds, shows Sherman again adopting traditionally feminine poses. This series was initially commissioned by the magazine Artforum, which then declined to publish them (possibly because of their implicit critique of centrefold spreads found in men’s magazines). In some of the images we see her clad in gingham school girl skirts and blonde wigs, looking frightened, vulnerable or perturbed. Once more the supposed fragility of femininity is performed to the point of falsity.
Initially mimicking and mocking the symbols of beauty with lipstick and blonde wigs, Sherman’s later work makes use of more abrasive and unpleasant aesthetics in her disguises. Particularly jarring are the darker images, those which deliberately present a sinister side, thereby exposing the (often ugly) material layers we use to construct our own appearance. We see this in several sections of the exhibition, not least in the small room containing her series, Fairy Tales, perhaps the crudest and self-reflexive collection of all. One image is a notable example of this: in ‘Untitled Film Still #546’, Sherman’s figure crouches on all fours, her eyes obscured in panda-style eye-shadow, her unnerving grin exposing a row of black rotten teeth. This is grotesquery taken to an extreme, a vision of mania at its utmost. Sherman’s affronting gaze invites the viewer in, but the repulsion of the character urges us to retreat, subsequently creating a push and pull tension in the image. It is a disturbingly powerful photograph; one that at once attracts and repels with its simultaneous ugliness and beauty.
This unnerving juxtaposition is idiosyncratic of Sherman’s work, particularly when it comes to the Fairy Tales series. According to curator Paul Moorhouse, Fairy Tales was made in response to the fame Sherman gained with her aforementioned series, Film Stills. Wearing a monstrous pig head in response to the popularity of her appearance as young movie heroines in Film Stills, Sherman confirms her artistic versatility and deconstructs the darker side of traditional conceptions of womanhood and performances of gender.
Sherman’s work examines institutional influences on the appearance of women in particular. Be it in her mockery of the media in the early three-part series, Cover Girl, which mimics and caricatures magazine cover stars; or her deconstruction of the representation of women throughout the canon of art history, as seen in her History Portraits series, Sherman reveals (and revels in) the grotesquery behind social standards of beauty and the false notion of a fixed identity. In Society Portraits, Sherman’s women wear jewellery, excessive amounts of cracked foundation and pose against luxurious-looking superimposed backgrounds, thus revealing the perfection to which they strive to be fake. Likewise, the ridiculous prosthetic breasts in History Portraits ridicule great masters of old and their rendering of women, whilst also speaking to modern notions of motherhood and continued media debates around breastfeeding. The aesthetics of womanhood that Sherman speaks to and critiques is, therefore, timeless, giving her work an enduring profundity which is well observed in this extensive exhibition.
As curator Paul Moorhouse states, no artist other than Sherman “interrogates the illusions presented by modern culture in such a penetrating way – or scrutinises so tellingly the facades that people adopt. Probing the elusive connection between appearance and meaning, her work explores contemporary life – and with sharp observation exposes its deceptions.”
- Feature Image: Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Still #56’ from her Untitled Film Stills series. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
- Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’ Madame Moitessier (1856), oil on canvas. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery; Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled #204’ from her History Portraits series. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.