A guided tour of Cindy Sherman
04 December 2016
City Gallery Wellington Director Elizabeth Caldwell picks five favourite images from the exclusive New Zealand solo exhibition by the internationally acclaimed American photographic artist.
The exhibition starts with the series called ‘Head Shots’ made in 2000. For me, these are a nod to the famous series she made in the late 1970s, ‘Untitled Film Stills’, which first catapulted Sherman to fame. However, where that series depicted a series of movie starlets on their way up in the film world, this series seems to present us with a cast of ‘wannabes’. Maybe they are housewives, office workers and restaurant workers by day, touting portfolios of wonky amateur head shots, looking for their big break. Perhaps because of the resonance of recent American elections, Untitled #404 reminds me of a young Hillary Clinton or perhaps the less glamorous sister of Betty Draper from Mad Men. This series offers both satire and empathy; these characters are grappling with their idea of self, their identities and who they are or want to be. During the ‘My Favourite Cindy’ talks on the opening day of the exhibition, poet Hera Lindsay Bird presented a wonderful poetic response to this work, describing Untitled #404 as the poster girl for loneliness.
Image: Cindy Sherman/Untitled #414 2003/Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York/© The artist
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I suffer from coulrophobia — fear of clowns — I’m not a big fan of them either. Their costumes and make-up are often quite menacing and they always seem so tremendously unfunny! In the ‘Clowns’ series of 2003–2004, Sherman explores the specific character type of the clown and it is the first series she researched using the Internet. The heavy make-up used to create extreme facial expressions masking genuine emotion seems to comment on the multiple selves we all present to the world. The play on identity also extends to gender, as in this series Sherman plays a male clown and sometimes a man playing a woman. New developments in digital photography also allow Sherman to reinforce the idea of multiplicity when it comes to identity by incorporating multiple characters into a single photograph. By superimposing her clown figure in front of a lurid psychedelic background, she conveys a nightmarish interior head space.
Image: Cindy Sherman/Untitled #462 2007–08/Purchased 2011 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation/Collection: Queensland Art Gallery/© The artist
Sherman has frequently worked with couture fashion houses, most famously Chanel and Balenciaga (both partnerships represented in this exhibition). Untitled #462 is from the ‘Balenciaga’ series of 2007–08 and is the first series the artist created with a digital camera. This technology allowed her greater flexibility during the shooting process, as she didn’t have to wait for film to be developed to see whether she had captured the effect she was seeking. It also meant she could change the backgrounds and insert multiple figures. The art and fashion crossover underpinning this series is made even more emphatic when you know Balenciaga is owned by Francois Pinault, himself a major art collector. Sherman is on record as having an equivocal position when it comes to fashion. She loves it, but at the same time is critical of the way the fashion industry can negatively influence women’s sense of self-worth. This series beautifully captures the knife edge of admiration and parody. The women featured are depicted as affluent celebrity-seeking creatures chasing validation in the world of the social pages and on social media.
Cindy Sherman/Untitled #465 2008/Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York/© The artist
Digital photography has allowed Sherman’s work to get bigger and the ‘Society Portraits’ series of 2008 are much bigger than life size. She introduces opulent backgrounds and elaborate frames. This is wealth and societal status on full display. Although the sense of strained aspiration present in ‘Head Shots’ and ‘Balenciaga’ is gone — these are women who have made it (at least financially) — there is still a vulnerability about these figures. Their haughty dominant gaze combines with a scent of quiet desperation. Untitled #465, perhaps vying with Untitled #466 to be queen of the country club, has fought hard to get where she is and isn’t letting go. But the red-rimmed eyes and the pinched lines around her mouth make you wonder if she thinks it was all worth it!
Cindy Sherman/Untitled #567 2016/Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York/© The artist
Untitled #567 is from Sherman’s new work this year. It is so new it hasn’t been given a name yet. We are lucky enough to be among the first in the world to see it. A few works were shown at her gallerist in New York, Metro Pictures, before they went to Brisbane and then to us. Like ‘Head Shots’, this series seems to allude to her famous ‘Untitled Film Stills’. Instead of being at the start of their careers, now the women gazing out at us are older. Perhaps they have succeeded in the glamour world of the movies, but appear to be somewhat wistful about their past glory days. They cause us to reflect on women and aging — what roles do these former screen sirens play now? On screen and in society? Sherman has taken her inspiration for the series from the era of early Hollywood and Weimar cinema (German cinema during the Weimar Republic 1918–33); figures like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich come to mind. She has used a new technique in these works, dye sublimation prints on aluminium. It’s a technique that involves using heat and pressure to transfer an image directly onto the metal and it produces a wonderfully glassy reflective finish. She has also used a Leica camera, which is known for producing beautifully creamy skin tones. The colours are extraordinarily lush and every texture is revealed in great contrast – delicious!
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