The recent exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s work at Metro Pictures had no title and very little exposition, much like the photographs themselves. Often times such exhibitions are staged to allow viewers an experience not preheated in a curatorial concept; but with Sherman, a pure, untethered experience is hardly possible. As I noted in my review of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition in this publication, Sherman’s visage is, by now, iconic. Jerry Saltz has said that hers is the “face that launched a thousand theories.” And yet, Sherman has maintained a deep sense of enigma—as well as a deconstruction of artifice—throughout three decades of being a postmodern poster-child.
The series on view at Metro Pictures, created between 2010 and 2012, shows Sherman outfitted in vintage Chanel costumes and placed, larger than life, against surreal, bucolic landscapes. The artist has kept to the conceit that made her famous: artist as the (ostensible) subject. There are some striking differences in this series, however. She does not employ the exaggerated makeup of her Clowns series. Nor does she embody a screen siren as in The Untitled Film Stills, emulate a Playboy model as in the Centerfolds, or pose as a masterwork from a bygone era as in the History Portraits. There are no telltale cultural attacks or witticisms. Sherman is suddenly, and, one must posit, purposefully, sly.
Sherman’s Hollywood/Hamptons and Society Portrait series, created between 2000-2008, provoked cries of mockery from both critics and the public at large. This next series is an answer to her detractors. Stripped of a persona, Sherman confronts the camera (and her viewers) barefaced, in a way she has never been before, as herself. She is not pointing fingers at any cultural target in particular. There will be no accusations of cruelty here. But it begs the question then: What exactly is Sherman doing now?
The Chanel couture from which the series evolved certainly speaks to class, wealth and put-on appearances. Yet, Sherman has not transformed herself into a fashion model or a fashion victim, either of which would have sent a clear message. This character stands somewhere in between those two roles, clad in beautiful, fanciful and sometimes strange clothing, posed against moody, volcanic landscapes, ash clouds and farm houses. These are photographs from her own travels to Iceland and Capri, which the artist later manipulated in Photoshop to appear as paintings. Her figure looms large in front of them, often pointing the way like a tour guide.
Indeed, Sherman is leading us in, directing us toward the place where truth and artifice overlap in her medium. Truth is smudged by the digitally manipulated quality of the photograph, while artifice is rendered absurd by the artist’s seemingly honest face. For the title of my review of the MoMA exhibition, I borrowed from Joanna Burton’s catalog essay. Burton explains how Sherman is able to expose cultural artifice by exposing its “seams.” It is striking to see, then, in these most recent pictures, that Sherman has created actual seams—the works are often two or three separate prints, framed together. The seams here work to expose the artifice of photography itself.
These pictures are not sexy, vulgar or mean. They are amazingly, brilliantly odd. They capture an angle perhaps not new to Sherman, but certainly never this apparently unmediated.
28 April–9 June, 2012
Metro Pictures Gallery