Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Cindy Sherman

I went to see the Cindy Sherman show in Vancouver this weekend. I guess it's a kind of retrospective.

The show is essentially chronological, and fairly completist. There's a video of a childhood book project, there's student work, there's Untitled Film Stills (UFS), and then onwards to color work organized as as collection of series, which you walk through in order. There's a wall-blurb for each series, presumably distilling the critical consensus around each. There is a complete set of Untitled Film Stills, and at least 3 or 4 prints from each series mentioned. Whether there are series completely unrepresented here, I do not know. The work spans 1975 or so until the present, we're looking at several hundred prints here.

There are something like 100 prints of very early work, all smallish black and white pictures. As time passes, the prints get larger and larger, until in the present time we see a lot of essentially life size or larger full-body portraits. Sometimes there are two or more Shermans in the frame, life sized, with a fair bit of space around them. These things are big.

The show is hung like garbage. In several cases its not clear what photos a given wall-blurb refers to, and some photos are sprinkled throughout that could belong to one of several different series that are blurbed and (mostly) grouped at the end. Frequently, examining a photo involves dancing around reflections and glare. The wall-blurbs themselves are borderline gibberish, but I suppose that is to be expected.

Knowing that prints of several of these objects have sold for millions of dollars imparts a slight sense of awe. It's a little like seeing a Monet show, although attenuated to the tune of a couple of zeros.

Anyways, with a little effort you can sort it out and start to make some sense of Sherman's career.

The magic quality that Sherman has is the ability to evoke a kind of recognition. In the Untitled Film Stills you recognize the movie. Kind of. It's not Breakfast at Tiffany's it's.. it's... what is it? You can't quite put your finger on it. Eventually you realize that there is no single film she's drawing from, that there is nothing to recognize, and yet you feel that powerful tip-of-my-tongue sensation. She is showing you the distinctive look of the thing, the tropes, the posture, the framing, and so on.

After the UFS it's a bit more hit and miss, but you do often have that same recognition, usually of people. I know her, she's that famous.. who is she?

Unfortunately, Sherman starts and ends with that sense of recognition. Well, she's also quite funny, but "funny" doesn't shift Art, so there's a lot of energy expended pretending that Sherman isn't just being funny.

She does this recognition in, I think, two distinct ways, although UFS arguably constitutes even a third.

The first approach is more direct. You recognize a specific thing, or you feel you do. I know that film, that person. In this case we are recognizing essentially media tropes, elements of cinema or public personas. The second, different, approach is recognition of a type or mood. Sherman has several series (Centerfolds, The Pink Robe, and a couple of others) which appear to be experiments with color and mood. In them she is generally portraying an otherwise generic woman-as-victim. We do not recognize the woman or her specific circumstances, but we do recognize the mood, the general kind of woman and the kind of situation in which she finds herself. We are recognizing here something more real, and less media (although the media surely colors our idea of what a woman in trouble looks like.

The trouble with Sherman is that all she's got is this thing we might call quotation. She started out quoting (or, if you prefer, paraphrasing) cinema. Later on she did various grotesqueries paraphrasing pornography and fairy tales, and for the last 20 or thirty years she is quoting (or wilfully, humorously, mis-quoting) specific types of people. This ability to create recognizable and yet not recognized (if you will permit me the glibness) pictures makes her quotations especially wonderful. But they remain quotations.

Archetypal are some magazine cover triptychs from her early work. Three copies of the same magazine cover: the original, another with Sherman's face made up to resemble the model (very well, by the way) pasted in to replace the model's face, and a third the same except Sherman is making a silly face. The antecedent, the quotation, the witty mis-quote. This is her constant theme.

These quotations are generally credited to her as "critque" which is largely bullshit. When she makes a grotesque of pornography, she is, well, let me quote from the wall blurb:

Sherman's images debunk the conventions of pornography and ridicule its visual language as a sham that conceals a striking emptiness.

Which, well, OK. I'm certainly not going to argue that pornography is deep and profound, it is pretty empty in some important senses. But let us see what the wall blurb has to say when she does the same thing for fairy tales. After some blather about media and violent themes in cinema and television drama and the forces of depravity in the contemporary world, we end with:

Sherman's use of artifice distances her images from these media sources. Even so, Fairy Tales hold up a mirror to the inescapable fact that such dark forces exist.

I mean, which is it? She's doing much the same thing in both places. She's quoting, in humorous/ridiculous ways the visual language of porn, and of fairy tales. Perhaps it's the fairy tales that actually conceal the striking emptiness, and it's porn that's the mirror. How on earth are we to know?

The critics are, obviously, just blathering. They are seeing Shermn more or less blandly quoting this thing or that thing, and applying to her work their own ideas. Pornography bad, therefore obviously this is a harsh deconstruction of its badness. Fairy Tales are um, damn it, violence in television is a thing so something something.

When I quote Brad Feuerhelm, let's say this doozy:

When one gets to speaking on “photographic seeing” what I am proposing is a way in which those attributes along with the rigour of what the subject may or may not be to an outside audience is endemic of the whole.

if I just put it out there, you could guess that I am mocking Brad (I am) because you know me. Perhaps you, like me, think Brad is a dunce, you'll examine this dogshit with fear and lust, and realize that it is as usual gibberish. If, on the other hand, you were a fan of Brad (i.e. another dunce) and found this quote in some random context, you likely would not notice that it is gibberish and would interpret the act of quotation as something other than mockery.

To make a quotation unambiguously criticism you have to add something to it, you have to say "and therefore, the whatever-it-is is dogshit."

There are a few things in the Sherman show that the critical apparatus is unable to get a handle on. There are some pictures of Sherman decked out as this clown or that clown, and the wall blurb contains 31 words on the series, and concludes that clowns are vaguely sinister. The critics have no idea what the hell is going on, and so, for once showing wisdom, fall more or less silent. I like the clown pictures almost the best of the lot, because they are so patently Sherman having fun and not trying to lard the work with to signs and portents for the critics to gnaw on. And, lo, she has evidently thwarted them here! Yay!

The single most interesting thing I noticed in the exhibit is how thoroughly different the Untitled Film Stills are from the rest. In these pictures she is engaged in full-body acting, in a fully realized scene, to recreate various feminine movie character types. I think you can argue maybe successfully that there is critique, comment, here, simply because she made a whole lot of them and one can readily see how limited the available character types are. This was a rather in-vogue discussion at the time (Mulvey invents "male gaze" in 1975, Sherman shoots these things 1977-1980). It's just quotation, but a great deal of it, perhaps to make a point.

In the UFS photos, she consistently looks like Cindy Sherman in a wig. Because she has not yet settled on her later technical methods, she is not able to so alter her face. Therefore she leans on other, less artificial-looking, methods to evoke her signature sense of recognition. Following UFS she did a couple of other things which are much more like her later work (focus on Sherman just sitting/standing there, in a made background, she fills the frame and emotes rather than acts) but in which her technical methods are not as fully realized.

The Centerfolds, Pink Robe, and a few other items mentioned above fall here. Sherman is emoting in the role of woman-as-victim, but is not trying to look like any particular physical type. She is content to look like herself, and embody a role. She does these things well. I would not say that she is much of a colorist, while these things over the decade or so that she did them are color studies they are invariably unappealing, almost ugly. These kinds of things wrap up in in the 1980s, though, and Sherman settles in to her groove of media quotation and mis-quotation more or less permanently.

Apart from UFS and the handful of color-study series, all the pictures are of the same type. Sherman glommed on to a bit of technique very early (I think we might see it first in the magazine covers). for the last 30-35 years perhaps, she has been lighting herself with two equally sized lights, one on each side, a little out front. This, I think, flattens her face out and allows her to draw on whatever contours she likes. She turns her face into a visually flat canvas, upon which she paints a new face.

It is startling to see the same lighting pattern so ubiquitous, over so many decades. Even when she is making fake old-masters paintings, there are the two highlights, the flattened face, the painted-in shadows indicating contours that do not exist. It is especially weird when she is quoting paintings from those eras when light was so central -- her light is completely wrong for the style, although Sherman as the model generally nails it.

Eventually she uses painted backgrounds, and in the series she made for Chanel a few years ago, the Cindy Sherman figure is blended into the background, the edges of her figure disintegrating into digital paint strokes to fit the painted scene in which she "stands." Everything is merely a canvas upon which paint of one sort or another is applied, and always, always, the two parallel catchlights in the eyes, one a little left and one a little right.

Sherman is clearly have a great deal of fun. She might well be having a go at social criticism, but it's not particularly evident in the work. I think she just shoves in some stuff for the critics to play with, and lets them figure it out, and meanwhile she's dressing up as a dinosaur and saying RARRRRRRR a great deal, because who doesn't want to dress up as a dinosaur and say RARRRRRR?

I kinda liked the show, but honestly, after a couple hundred pictures of Cindy Sherman, it gets a bit thin. She doesn't have an enormous range, and while she does the thing she does very very well, one feels that she has rung the changes on all of it, and perhaps there's not much more to say here. Perhaps she was kind of done around 1990 and has been fuckin' around enjoying herself every since. Which is all very well, but the work isn't super interesting any more.

It's fun, it's witty, but it's just so goddamned BIG and there's just so MUCH of it.


  1. Assuming this is the same show that I saw in London's National Portrait Gallery in August last year, this is a very fair review. For me, I have to say that it got so dull and repetitive after the first few rooms that I had to leave my daughter to it (it was her birthday treat, and she and my partner loved it). Interestingly, my son was also bored, despite being a very "woke" sort of guy, so maybe it was just a case of getting one's male gaze bent out of shape. Again, and again, and again, and...


    1. Yes, I believe that it is the same show. I'm not sure where all it's been between there and here! But I suppose it will circulate a bit more.

  2. Sherman is yet another contemporary photograher I don't 'Get'.

    1. If you treat it as a woman playing dressup and having a hell of a good time at it, you will a) enjoy the work a lot more abd b) not be very far off what's actually there.

  3. I saw this in Bremen a while ago. I liked the film stills, the rest less so, and although I didn't enjoy the clowns very much, in a way I felt they were the most honest photos - here the physical grotesque mask was the clearest of the masks there.

  4. Haven't seen the show, but semi-recently flipped through a big fat book, and what struck me about her work is that she is very much a one-trick pony trapped in a gilded cage of her own marketing, like so many of her ilk (the ilk of mega-star art personalities).

  5. You've managed to pull a random quote of mine which has nothing to do with Sherman, whom I've never covered and slap it to your poorly written assessment. Good work if you can get it, I guess. I don't mind you thinking I am a dunce, but I would point out that your standard bloviation here misses the mark of your own work, which is to (from what I can tell) invoke a sincerity of position regarding thinking through the matters of photography. Its clear you are simply looking to cast slander on my critical efforts, which is fair as I have never claimed to be a critic, nor do I think what I do is always great. That being said, being a prick about it on a personal level is only damaging your vast intellectual superiority. People can read through your inadequacies, mate.

    1. I'm just glad people are reading through my inadequacies rather than lingering on them.

    2. "invoke a sincerity of position regarding thinking through the matters of photography"


    3. yea, pretty much the response I though tI would get- tepid on all accounts. Enjoy your blogging.

    4. Did you want me to start a fist fight or something?

      Or were you expecting a Robust Defense or something?

      There's nothing to defend. You clearly didn't pay much attention to my remarks, but focused on the tiny detail where I used mockery of your writing for purposes you don't understand.

      I get it, you're stung. That's natural, that's normal, and you don't much care what I wrote about Sherman, or why I mocked you. There's no requirement that you do. I don't recommend that anyone read my blog.

      But you're miles off the mark, you're not engaged with anything I am interested in, so I'm moving on. The fact that you're incapable of expressing yourself coherently doesn't help, but it's not the real issue.