Go to the Cindy Sherman photography retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art, opening Sunday. Go, because it’s a landmark exhibition of a contemporary trailblazer, which began at MOMA in New York and is ending its tour here in Dallas. A rare oportunity. But go with this assignment: See if you can find portraits of everyday, happy women. Not ecstatic, not joyful, just … caught in a moment, content to be where they are, who they are.
There are probably half-a-dozen smiles in all of these 157 photos. But even these smiling rarities feel embattled or forced. Or they’re actually painted on — as with Sherman’s clowns. In her society portraits of recent years, the smile is most often part of the brave face that an elegant matron of a certain age has put on to confront the photographer, the matron having armored herself in her jewelry and socio-economic status. Sometimes, it’s a crumbling, vulnerable smile, surrendering vanity to time, to the camera and the viewer’s pitiless judgment. In Sherman’s more down-market ‘headshot’ series from 2000-2, the smile is a stiff, eager grin in an actor’s resume shot, part of a studio pose — a studio pose, as everything in Sherman’s work pointedly is.
The image above — Untitled #119 from 1983 — was chosen because it’s one of Sherman’s only bits of exuberance. But even here, because Sherman’s mouth is open, it suggests the woman is singing, perhaps announcing at a public occasion. In short, it’s a theatrical performance — like so much of Sherman’s work pointedly is.
Collectively, Cindy Sherman is a Recreated History of the Constructed Images of Western Woman. In 1975, Sherman made a black-and-white Super 8 film called Doll Clothes — on view at the DMA — in which she played dress-up and depicted herself as a cut-out paper doll. Everything she’s done since has elaborated on that idea — the female self as both variable and conscripted, given shopping choices by the marketplace but flattened and defined and limited by culture, media, society, history. Sherman’s chromagenic prints have progressed through fashion to take on films, pop celebrity, fairy tales, society pages, centerfolds, crime scene photos, even colossal murals (displayed at the DMA in a remarkable single ‘room,’ with four incarnations of Sherman dominating the barrel vault).
In Sherman’s world, sex, in particular, is not a happy fun time. It’s a gothic undercurrent throughout her work, starting with the noir-ish movie stills she did in the ’70s with their anxious-looking ‘office gals’ and icy ‘sexpots.’ If we wish, we can exclude the most extreme examples, such as her infamous, disturbing sequence of sex pictures from the late ’80s-early ’90s, with their excrement and vomit and dismembered, plastic genitalia. And we can exclude the images inspired by slasher flicks (during Thursday’s press preview, MOMA associate curator Eva Respini dropped the title of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Sherman’s favorite film). Given the voyeuristic mediums she’s replicating — fashion spreads to porn — it’s no surprise she occasionally depicts women as threatened, as rape or murder victims.
But even with these extreme examples set aside, we’re still left with a range of more day-to-day sexual regrets and discomforts, like the rumpled aftermaths of lovemaking (Untitled #89, above) or her unsmiling, 1950s-style ‘glamor girls.’ We also have the amazing grotesqueries of her “classic painting” facsimiles. In these, medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment women have their waists cinched, their (fake) breasts bared, their postures formal and demure, all for their husband-patrons. Here, as both artist and model, Sherman steps inside these historic-aesthetic icons, and we see them from the woman-subject’s view. And, lord, how the whole framework of the male gaze, female gender identity, sexual performance and historic influence is such a crippling burden. It distorts, it wearies, it’s inescapable.
I bring all this up not as criticism — again, the exhibition is a fascinating powerhouse — but to understand what Sherman does by what she doesn’t depict. In Bernini’s Beloved, Sarah McPhee writes that Bernini’s marble bust of his mistress, Costanza Piccolomini — the unfaithful lover whose face he had slashed — is the first statue of a Western woman with a half-smile on her face, caught in a private moment. In The Lost Battles, Jonathan Jones says much the same for da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa. Formal portraits of women — if they appeared at all — were for the august and the respectable, meaning the demure Virgin Mary or the unsmiling matriarchs of wealthy clans. To smile was to express direct emotion, to flirt, to enjoy oneself, to open up to the viewer. We don’t really see large numbers of female subjects doing that — or being pregnant or being simply, pleasantly happy — in artworks until the 17th and 18th centuries, with their many eager goddesses, dancing Dutch hausfraus and playful coquettes in French gardens.
But photography, obviously, is a modern, near-universal medium. Just look around, see how the camera is used and has been used for generations, in family albums, Facebook selfies, vacation snaps, all those records of people’s expressions and special occasions. And plenty of women smile in these captured bits of time, not necessarily forced smiles, either, not social displays of accommodation. They’re simply … signs of ordinary contentment.
None of which, as I started out noting, really appears in Sherman’s work, even though for more than 30 years, she’s been impersonating a wide range of women in different styles of photography. Which highlights something that often seems lost in the discussion about Sherman’s art. It’s social satire — brilliant, brilliant satire. As much as Sherman documents in astonishing and convincing detail the ways women present themselves, preen themselves, are forced to reconfigure themselves, these images mock, they undercut, they expose.
Looking at a Sherman shot, there’s often the startled moment of recognition: “I swear I saw that scene in a Robert Siodmak film.” Or “I know a women who looks just like that, that ramrod posture, that imperious, Diana Vreeland-ish stare over the shoulder.” But, of course, it’s not that movie scene, it’s not your acquaintance, it’s Sherman, Sherman theatricalized, Sherman after a lot of artful lighting work, Sherman in makeup and wig and borrowed clothes and a chosen setting.
Given all this, it’s natural Sherman would be attracted to extremes — even in the ‘normal.’ That’s the satirist’s work, pushing things so far, we finally see what we often don’t see. As both Respini and DMA curator Gabriel Ritter emphasized Thursday, Sherman, through her many poses, demonstrates how elastic human identity is. Her amazing skills with disguise underscore our constructed selves while exposing photography’s supposedly accurate record-keeping of ‘reality.’ When we take delight in Sherman’s actor-y talents, it offsets, to a degree, the profoundly unsettling nature of many of these images.
But it’s not just that Sherman shuffles female masks like so many flash cards. Sherman takes the female body itself as clay, as a building block of identity, re-shaping, hiding, extending, distorting. (The few times she poses as a man — as in those ‘classic paintings — she often concentrates on the face and upper torso; “body image” is not as key.) The curators make the point — when we reach Sherman’s sexually explicit series — that these particular images of disease and wretched sex represent the artist’s response to the AIDS crisis and cultural conflicts of the ’80s and ’90s.
Untitled #137 from 1984 and Untitled #193 from 1989, courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York, copyright 2012 Cindy Sherman
Certainly. But breaking the body and the face down into component parts is what Sherman always does. It was probably inevitable that she’d reach the point where the body becomes just a blank slate, so much wet plaster. Or it dissolves into puss and hair, semen and blood. Or it simply disappears altogether, a kind of ultimate nihilism of the flesh.
From that dead end, Sherman turned to the more foregrounded artifice of clowns, of high society and history. When Sherman’s round-ish face is present in her images, her nose is perhaps her strongest, most distinctive feature. She can leave it like the rapier blade of a Meryl Streep or try to thin or minimize it with shadow or lightener. But her hair and eyebrows, her lips, even her eye color and chin can be more easily reconfigured. Her nose remains one signpost identifying Sherman in whatever shape she takes on.
Which may be why, in her later works, she’s taken to disguising it completely with putty or prosthetics or the red noses of clowns. Respini said that most of Sherman’s historic painting facsimiles are not inspired by individual artworks, and she cited Sherman’s version of Caravaggio’s “Young Sick Bacchus” as an exception. Actually, several works are clearly modeled on specific paintings, and I can’t help thinking that Sherman’s duplication of Fra Bartolommeo’s profile portrait of Savonarola isn’t something of a joke about her own nose: The huge, plastic shnozz she’s glued on is like a party novelty, a beagle puss.
When they first appeared, these ‘paintings’ were not well-received by some critics: They’re too distant from us, both too outlandish and too formal. They seem like a retreat, they’re not as likely to make viewers feel uncomfortable about our own vanities, the way Sherman’s work generally does so well. But I think they weren’t welcomed by some because they make plain what is true in all of Sherman’s work, even her more ‘contemporary’ and ‘realistic’ photographs: They’re caricatures, remarkably fabricated caricatures. But in these instances, the distortions of makeup and costume and posture can’t be denied. As always, Sherman turns photography into gender-identity theater. But here, it’s a theater of powdered wigs and puffy sleeves and padded, paunchy stomachs.
She’s clearly a woman having some fun, playing dress-up.
All images, copyright 2012 Cindy Sherman