One often hears it said that Cindy Sherman is one of the most influential and important artists working today. But until you see her work en totale—as it is being shown at the Walker Art Center in an extraordinary retrospective spanning 30 years of the artist’s career—it’s difficult to appreciate how much work Sherman puts into her photographs, how impressive the works are, how much thematic territory she covers, and how serious an artist she really is.
Cindy Sherman, the show, was originally curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and features more than 160 photographs from all phases of Sherman’s career. Many of those photos are very small (23 are in a wallet-sized sequence from Sherman’s college days, chronicling her transformation from a nerdy-looking kid to a provocative vamp), and many are gigantic, including the larger-than-life “Society Portraits” that serve as the show’s emphatic exclamation point.
In between are dozens of her “Untitled Film Stills” from the 1970s, her so-called “Centerfolds” from the 1980s, selections from her Fairy Tale, History, Fashion, and Sex series, and lots of head shots and clowns. Cindy Sherman herself is the central actor in almost all of them: and I say “actor,” because what Cindy Sherman does isn’t so much photography as a kind of still-life performance art. For each photo, she basically dresses up as a character—an abused housewife, an over-the-hill fashion model, a wart-nosed nobleman—creates a set in her studio, and takes pictures of herself. She works alone, does all her own makeup and costumes, and is basically a one-person theatrical production company. There is more theater in her photos than photography; she is simply an actress with extraordinary range who prefers to perform in two dimensions rather than three.
You have no doubt seen many of these photos in magazines and newspapers, but until you see them in person it’s impossible to appreciate how enormous most of them are, and how preoccupied Sherman is with ugliness, deformity, grotesqueness, and, inversely, idealization of the human body in popular culture. Sherman can make herself look beautiful—as she does in the movie stills, where she mimics Marilyn Monroe—but she prefers to uglify herself in order to call into question the many ways in which photographic reality is Photoshopped and airbrushed to synthetic perfection. Her centerfolds are sad, forlorn women whose faces are smeared with tears and makeup. Her fashion models are aging, beauty-challenged women trying to be something they’re not. Her society ladies are women who were once clearly beautiful, but whose attempts to stave off the ravages of time—through exaggerated makeup, face lifts, plastic surgery, fat-molding underwear, etc.—have largely failed. The effort is valiant, but the result is pitiful—and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
The thing is, you know these women. They are the aging movie stars whose lips, cheeks, and foreheads have been unnaturally plumped. They are co-workers who are trying to hide their encroaching gray, they’re sun-damaged skin, they’re wrinkles, bulges, and scars. They are all of us, really—everyday people who must eventually submit to the cruel indignities of age and time.
Sherman also has her creepy, grotesque side. Her “sex” photos are the most disgusting: a butt full of boils, a giant shot of shiny, gory intestines, a collage of vomit, blood, feces. Then there are the clowns: all of them sad, crazy, demented. It’s plain from these photos that Sherman has a fascination for horror films and, conversely, people’s unquenchable desire to see other people hacked, mutilated, and dismembered. In an interview she did for the New York show, Sherman explained how horror films have influenced her:
“Scary movies. Strange characters. Fierce women. Odd behavior. Obscured stories. Innovative filmmaking. I think are the characteristics that tie together all the films that are my favorites, all the films that inspire me. They inspire me to create characters, tell stories without words, playing attraction off repulsion, letting the viewer discover the story (or making it hard for them).”
Indeed, it’s the story behind the photos that makes Sherman’s work so intriguing—or the story that you imagine is there. As in live theater, however, the artifice is never very far from the surface. You can see the makeup, false breasts, altered facial features, wigs, and other props. She doesn’t try to hide them—in fact, by making the photos so large, some even larger than life-size—she makes sure you can see it all, because the whole point is to recognize the layers of artifice for what they are: fakery meant to obscure some essential or uncomfortable truth. That’s what artists do, after all. Long story short: Put Cindy Sherman on your must-see list. It’s one of those exhibits that will be discussed for a long time to come, and which every cultured person needs to see, if only to see a discomfiting glimpse of themselves.
Cindy Sherman continues at the Walker Art Center through Feb. 17.