“Everyone thinks these are self-portraits but they aren’t meant to be. I just use myself as a model because I know I can push myself to extremes, make each shot as ugly or goofy or silly as possible.”
It’s taken me a long while to be able to write this post about Cindy Sherman. Not only is the woman a photographer, a model, a feminist, a make-up artist… she’s also a trans mannequin, a sad clown, a desperately past-her-prime society woman, a soccer mom, an aging hippie, an out-of-touch nightclubber, an old Hollywood heroine, and many other “characters.”
Since this is a blog post, not a 400-page analytical art book, I’m going to focus just on my two favorite series- 1979’s Untitled Film Stills and 1981’s Centerfolds/Horizontals. (Suffice to say I think her work went downhill in the ’80s… truly plunging into unchallenging, derivative OBVIOUSNESS with 2003’s Clowns series.)
Moving on… the idea behind Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills was to imagine and create a cast of diverse female characters, all played by the artist. A sort of new spin on cinematic archetypes. Let’s be clear: this is NOT a series of self-portraits.
What I love to think about when I look at these photographs is the difference between how men and women would interpret the characters at first glance- the objectification of the “male gaze” vs. really seeing some sort of dark, psychological layer to these fabricated women.
The photos lend themselves to the viewer making up their own narrative for the characters- I like to compare mine to my friends’ versions too. “She’s a mistress who was just outted by the man’s step-daughter… and now she has ten minutes to leave town before the wife comes to kill her– where will she escape?” Outlandish, often morbid things like that. I think Sherman wanted viewers to imagine their own truths for the photographs.
Centerfolds/Horizontals was commissioned- but not actually used- for the magazine ArtForum. The format is meant to reference Playboy’s centerfolds, and certainly has an effect on how we look at the women in the photos. I love how exposed and vulnerable these women appear. It makes the viewer feel creepy for even looking at the art. Seriously, I literally creeped myself out at this exhibit. That sort of discomfort is possibly my favorite reaction to art, though.
As with the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman reveals how femininity is a social construct through the women’s all-too-familiar expressions. Lonely housewife, defeated rape victim… the stock female characters aren’t as “classic” as those in her early work, but they’re no less recognizable to us today. The falsified narratives I came up with for the women in the Centerfolds series? Let’s not talk about it.
SFMOMA’s Cindy Sherman exhibition runs through October 8th.