Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Is Cindy Sherman the Broadest of Them All?
Cindy Sherman,Untitled #70, 1980. Chromogenic color print, 20 x 24 inches. © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures. All images courtesy of Cindy Sherman and The Broad unless otherwise noted.
There’s not a young artist or writer today who hasn’t at some point in their career either stumbled upon, been faced with, or become enamored by the inimitable Cindy Sherman. She is the ultimate (though very white and female) art world success story. She is Peggy from Mad Men, busting out copy that’s better than all the dudes in the room.
Cindy Sherman is that socially awkward artist who kept doing her weirdo thing. Creatively, her interests are located somewhere between performative impersonations of media archetypes, a desire to photograph without becoming a commercial photographer, and an ongoing fascination with the historical self-portrait. Mega collector Eli Broad first discovered Sherman’s work at a Lower East Side gallery in 1982 and did his signature thing of buying up more than 20 of her works in one fell swoop. So began the beginning of Sherman’s art world career, and her business relationship with Broad.
Yet the show is not organized by Broad, even though the majority of pieces in this show come from his collection. Instead, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life was organized by guest curator Phillip Kaiser. Because so much of Sherman’s work deals with cinematic and Hollywood archetypes, Kaiser took that as a jumping off point because there’s no better place for mirrors, spotlights, and stardom than Los Angeles. Sherman’s work is an always critical yet entrancing combination of what we both desire in media, and what is abhorrent about that desire.
The exhibition itself is very basic in its structure and layout, moving chronologically through the artists’ life and work. The only thing not conservative about the curatorial structure is that at the beginning of the exhibition, we see several blown-up wall-coverings of photographs from the rear-screen series.
The show begins with her Untitled Film Still series, which she began working on as a graduate student at Rochester. We see these familiar black-and-white images of her performing people she spotted on the bus, including the troubling Blackface image that she later wrote a note about. It explains why she felt justified in doing this, rather than just apologizing. Yet even though she didn’t directly apologize, it’s hopeful to see that she is aware of her own internalized racism, and how performing in Blackface perpetuates racism today.
These pieces are followed up by the rear-screen projections, dating around 1980. In this series, made entirely in Sherman’s studio, she created scene-specific backgrounds using projected images and stood in front of them. This project offers a curious look into cinematic history since this is a technique that dates back to the 1930s. Here we start to see her fascination with cinematic archetypes, such as in “Untitled #77” (1980), where we see her appear in the corner of a Central Park shot, her eyes looking off to the side, her hair a bit messy. In this image, she is a girl wandering through Central Park, an iconic place. Was she mimicking a scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall? Possibly. Does it matter? Not really. What matters is that we realize the cinematic moment of that era.
From there, Sherman took a jaunt through editorial photographs of women, such as “Untitled #112” (1982), in which she plays a tomboyish girl. There’s an eeriness implied by the shadows cast upon the character’s face. Her art historical series features gaudy remakes of Rococo and Baroque-era self-portraits. In “Untitled #196, 1989, Sherman appears as a glossy, stately young man, among other characters from art history. Then we see her fake body part-filled horror film photographs from the late 80s. During this period, it’s all about an encounter with disembodiment, bodily fluids, and fake parts galore. After that, she creates dozens of creepy clown portraits. Her 2000 series of people from high society and talk shows seems to bring things back around to media representations of women, particularly ones with orange skin. Her box office flop Office Killer (1997) plays on a loop in a partitioned-off room. Her only feature film, which was dubbed a B-movie and received a lukewarm review from Roberta Smith in the New York Times. It was, however, a venture into new and exciting territory for Sherman. Media scholar Dahlia Schweitzer even wrote a book about it. The show also presents some newer work: Sherman dressed up as silent film stars, which feels like a nod to the many portraits of silent film stars that one sees at the iconic LA movie theater Cinefamily.
The show is well deserved and offers an incredible layout of this influential artist’s long career. Normally I would be interested in a more creative or experimental approach to the curation, but in this case, it felt appropriate just to keep it chronological, linking periods of time in Sherman’s life to what was happening in American cultural history. There’s nothing critical or reflexive about the work in this show other than the work itself and its intrinsic and necessary discussion of our media-saturated culture.