Some leading artists come across as would-be pop stars or super salesmen. There are those like Marina Abramovic, who are charm personified; others, such as Matthew Barney, immersed in their work to the point of distraction. Cindy Sherman is a study in normality. Small of stature, still fresh-faced at 62, put her in a group photo and she’d be the last person you’d notice.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Since the late 1970s the New York-based artist has been staging the longest-running, most celebrated masquerade in world art. Her breakthrough series was the Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980, in which she posed as imaginary female characters from old black-and-white movies, from Hollywood film noir to Italian Neorealism.
The young Sherman made herself into a blank screen upon which 69 different identities could be projected. Using her face as “a canvas” she quickly realised she could never be an artist whose temperament is visible in every work or in a signature style. The joy of the series lay in the sheer variety of impersonations, the sly details, the visual chutzpah and wit.
Almost forty years later Sherman has been through multiple series, occasionally withdrawing from the frame, as in the Sex Pictures of 1992, in which she photographed medical prostheses. Throughout the 1990s she took very few pictures of herself but when she got back in front of the camera a new assurance was in evidence.
In an exhibition simply titled Cindy Sherman, the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane is exhibiting the artist’s work since the year 2000. There is no crossover from her previous Australian survey, held at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999.
The show consists of seven series: Head Shots (2000-02), Clowns (2003-04), Balenciaga (2007-08), Society Portraits (2008), Murals (2010), Chanel (2010-12) and a new suite of images inspired by stars of the silent movie era, never previously exhibited.
The first series, Head Shots, is flagrantly satirical, encapsulating the Hollywood pipe dream in a succession of grotesques. Sherman told an interviewer: “My idea for the characters was would-be or has-been actors (in reality, secretaries, housewives, or gardeners) posing for headshots to get an acting job. These people are trying to sell themselves with all their might, they’re begging the viewer: don’t you want to hire me?”
These women are “the stars that never were”, as the song goes, parking cars and pumping gas in L.A. Every one of them is trying too hard to accentuate whatever she sees as her best feature. The fake tan, blonde wig and blindingly white teeth of Untitled #354, suggests a 70s ideal of beauty. Untitled #360 is an aging vamp from a Russ Meyer movie, while Untitled #398 is a cowgirl put out to pasture.
All are recognisable types who may have played a role or two in a B movie, and now cling hopefully to the persona that gave them their moment of fame. In their faces we read various degrees of naïvete, hopefulness or frustration. Some combine disparate emotions, as with the biker chick in Untitled #355 who is trying to look tough, but seems to be pleading with her eyes.
Sherman’s Clowns were made in the wake of 9/11, when life in New York was turned upside down. These creepy figures have affinities with her Fairy Tales and Disasters of the 1980s, which were actively repulsive to the viewer. In response to an investment boom in the 80s art scene Sherman set out to push collectors to their limits. Would they be so enamoured of fashions and names that they’d buy large coloured photos of dead bodies and vomit? They paused, but only momentarily. The images now sell for millions of dollars at auction.
The Clowns are more elusive in their repulsiveness. The central paradox is that clowns are supposed to be fun but many people find them terrifying. There’s even a name for a fear of clowns: coulrophobia. They seem to appear in a disproportionate number of horror movies, while serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, made a living playing a clown at children’s parties.
These clowns have a menacing, psychotic edge. Untitled #423 would sooner punch someone than make them laugh. Untitled #419, in faux-nude body suit and huge pink gloves, is a demonic vision of teen sexuality sitting astride a teddy bear. Some of these clowns are sexually indeterminate, others such as Untitled #418 appear positively evil. Behind the painted smiles we are conscious of the wrinkles of age, the bitterness of thwarted ambitions, a misanthropy straining at the leash.
It’s a relief to leave the Clowns and wander into the galleries devoted to the Murals and fashion shoots. The Murals place larger-than-life figures of Sherman in landscapes shot in Central Park and subjected to Rorschach-like mirrorings. The pictures have been printed onto vinyl wallpaper and fixed to a curved wall. At the end of the show they will be peeled off and discarded.
Each of the giant characters have had their features digitally altered, although not to enhance their attractions. They are dressed in a bizarre array of outfits redolent of an amateur theatre group. There is no single image, no matter how outlandish the costume, in which Sherman looks anything but frumpy. It’s as if she were suggesting that clothes – not to mention monumental scale – can’t create a vibrant personality from the dullest clay.
She seems to have brought a similar perspective to the commissioned photo shoots using clothes by Balenciaga and Chanel. Sherman says she disliked the way fashion messes with people’s minds, giving them a false impression of what they have to be – usually an anorexic stick-figure.
Her original intention was to mock, but as she worked with the costumes provided by the couturiers she became increasingly caught up in the glitz and make-believe. The final results are weird, surreal, but far from negative – even when she places a white-suited commedia dell’arte figure and a woman in a feathery bridal gown in a rugged Icelandic landscape, as in Untitled #548.
It’s an unwinnable argument as to whether Sherman is cruel to her characters or full of affection. She probably couldn’t say with any certainty herself. Yet it’s undeniable she is becoming an ever more acute observer of the human comedy unfolding around her on all sides.
Her Society Portraits are masterpieces of characterisation, showing women who are wealthy but not necessarily happy. All are expensively dressed, albeit rarely in good taste. The two smiling matrons in Untitled #475 look utterly empty-headed, while the lady in the red dress in Untitled #470 can’t disguise her bitterness and hostility. Traces of sophistication in one subject are countered by the gaudy crassness of others.
Eight years separates the Society Portraits from the new series of silent movie stars, which find Sherman putting aside her penchant for satire and critique. These women, each a seductress in her own way, are not instantly identifiable as actresses such as Greta Garbo or Gloria Swanson, but they remind us of the roles they would play, and of a presence that filled the screen in a way lost to contemporary cinema, which pays more attention to visual effects than to the construction of character.
There is a subtlety in these pictures that feels new to Sherman’s work. Instead of sending up the hopeless aspirations of would-be starlets, she is reflecting, in elegiac fashion, on what it meant to be a Hollywood idol at a time when the movies provided a refuge from the Great Depression. It was an age of memorable roles for women, before the Hayes Code decreed that only the most wholesome values should be allowed on screen.
In today’s world there is a different problem, as extremes of permissiveness and puritanism erode the in-between space in which great art can flourish. For this one may partly blame the Internet, which allows us to choose the news and viewpoints we absorb, reinforcing our existing prejudices. In the cultural arena some artists are eager to shock, and some audiences are eager to be shocked.
Cindy Sherman has been to that edge and doubled back and her work of the past decade demonstrates a sense of enlightenment. She knows it’s not shock value that counts, but familiarity – more specifically, the need to take those things we think we know well and reveal unsuspected depths.
Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 3 October.
John McDonald flew to Brisbane as a guest of the Queensland Art Gallery
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 25th June, 2016