Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures, New York
15 November - 23 December 2008
I enjoyed Jerry Saltz's review of the show in New York Magazine, but added the following comment:
When I saw the show, my first thought was that Cindy Sherman was being remarkably candid in depicting her female collectors. There they all are, up on the walls of Metro, the museum trustee doyennes, oil baronesses, superannuated cowgirls, Upper East Side plastic surgery queens, sexagenarian countesses and aging Foundation goddesses who have acquired Sherman photographs over the years. Or there they all are, caricatures of what she feels we think they look like. It's an homage of sorts, a jolt of recognition, bringing things full circle. John Waters seems to agree, and has been so quoted: “It’s great to see Cindy’s pictures in the same room with some of her best subjects.”
Saltz invokes a more generous viewpoint in his peroration. After years of admittedly "steering clear" of Cindy's "weirdness", of finding her art marked by "sensationalism, caricature, gags, and melodrama", he is finally ready to embrace his inner freak and her outer Sherman, all at once. It is a stirring moment, an epiphany. Speaking for all of us, his loyal readers and her long time observers, he (inadvertently?) cites a climactic passage from the classic Tod Browning horror film, Freaks: "We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us!"
At the fabulous after diner, Saltz was overheard saying: “This is the end. It’s going to be a long while before we’ll see anything like this again.” I assume he was discussing the opulence of the dessert bar, not the work in the gallery. It is sometimes difficult to see the photography for the petit fours.
Some further comments:
French director Jean Renoir's famous statement - that he was always making the same film, that his entire oeuvre could be viewed as one continuous, multifaceted effort - is (again inadvertently?) invoked by Saltz when he states that "all of Sherman’s work can be thought of as one Ur-picture, a gigantic Dickens-Daumier library of types." An interesting conceit, as Dickens was known for serializing his novels in contemporary Victorian periodicals - further stressing the dialectic of fragmentation and unification - and that both he and Daumier deal in caricature, in observing and cataloging general dramatic or social archetypes, stock characters in a pre-Freudian, perhaps commedia del l'arte sense.
Sherman's role playing, as both subject and artist, has generally adhered to a recognizable, replicable pattern, that of advancing stereotype over specific individual traits, and using simple shorthands of costume, makeup, wigs, props, and rear projected backdrops to suggest, accumulate, layer, and signify her synthetic identities. For those who have followed her over the years, she is always recognizable in the work, even when her body is fairly well submerged in a heavily prostheticized mise-en-scene that visually resolves into deposits of mucus, phlegm, blood and vomit foregrounding a forest of plastic doll-like limbs, torsos and heads.
Sherman has certainly had gnarly or grotesque periods, but these are generally less understood and valued, less sympathetically regarded, than the "cleaner", more accessible self portraits that recall a more traditional visual history of Hollywood cinema or modern photography or fashion. Her original success, of course, is the small scale b/w Untitled Film Series, in which she dresses up in thrift store clothing and uncannily embodies a convincing panoply of postures, poses and personae: romantic heroine, housewife, waitress, starlet, vagabond, student, harpy, vixen, working girl, hipster, dreamer, femme fatale, B-girl etc. These images are so powerful, and still speak so forcefully, with such a combination of artistic ingenuity and recognizable cultural antecedent, that many observers have difficulty following Sherman past this seminal body of work. Which is too bad, considering how fundamentally she has progressed, both in the formal elements of size, color and photographic medium, but also in her theoretical concerns, in her ontology of character and semiology of display.
Saltz is much too sophisticated to fall into the trap of only celebrating the film stills, yet there is something retrograde in his championing the current photographs - as possessed of "psychological weight and empathetic power" - at the expense of the "gooniness and shtick" which he seems to find in much middle period work. The essential reasoning is that Sherman has now lived longer, and therefore has acquired greater emotional depth, more life lessons to lend to her creations, which therefore benefit from a new maturity and honesty. He celebrates the current show for its lived-in resonance.
Reducing art criticism to biography is always a danger. It leads to a series of unsatisfying tautologies. That when Sherman was herself an ingenue in the art world, she naturally made ingenue art, populated with ingenue characters, and this was fully appropriate. Now that she is mature, Sherman has "earned" the right to make mature art, and this is reflected in convincingly realized characters that seem emotionally "real". But during a vast interim, when Sherman neither benefited from incipience nor from hard won experience, her work strives for effect, is insincere, empty, overly clever and distanced, and emotionally incomplete. This unfortunate critical strategy, of playing both ends against the middle, does not really help us understand the development of a single artistic career. It divides, but does not conquer.