From Contemporary Artists. 5 ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001
Cindy (Cynthia Morris) Sherman (b.1954, Glen Ridge, N.J.)
Raised in Long Island, in 1972 Cindy Sherman enrolled at the State University of New York (SUNY)-Buffalo, where she began as a painting student, but eventually switched her focus to photography. Sherman graduated from SUNY in 1976 and moved to New York City the following year. Here, her lifelong penchant for playing dress-up and college “paper doll” experiments (involving multi-character, single-frame narratives consisting entirely of cut-out self-portrait photos) evolved into a series of self-portraits that not only launched her career, but are today considered landmarks of late twentieth century art.
This series of Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) are 8x10 inch, black-and-white photographs depicting the artist in a variety of elaborate costumes playing roles reminiscent of stereotypical female “types” in cinema. However, instead of directly appropriating these roles from the imagery of others, she rather confiscates the symbolic constructions of women that culture often promotes. Inspired by the performance documentation of feminist artists such as Eleanor Antin and Adrian Piper, these works were meant to serve not as straight portraits but as documents of the artist’s staging of situations—in her studio and public sites—for the characters she creates to inhabit. Using costume and makeup transformations the artist renders herself virtually unrecognizable from photo to photo and, imitating conventional setups of the promotional film still genre, depicts the artist/character at hand in ambiguous situations seemingly lifted from an ongoing narrative—the working girl in the big city, the suburban housewife contemplating life over a sink of dirty dishes, the bobby-soxed hitchhiker waiting for a car to materialize around the bend. Although technically unremarkable—indeed, Sherman failed her first photography course at SUNY for her inability to master technical processes—these initial, unconventional self-portraits were created at a moment during which identity, spectatorship, and the role of the “author” were coming to the fore as the primary subjects of both postmodern and feminist studies. As such, scholars and critics were quick to adopt Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills as icons of these very issues. Adding fuel to the discursive fires surrounding Sherman’s photographs was their purposeful ambiguity, from the open-ended narratives they present to their lack of titles to the artist’s own reluctance to pin down the images’ meanings.
The Untitled Film Stills and subsequent forays into color self-portraiture, such as her untitled “rear screen projections” (1980-81) and controversial “centerfold” series (commissioned and eventually rejected by Artforum magazine in 1981), drew much attention from thinkers who read them as documents of postmodernist concerns. Readings of Sherman’s work immediately addressed her series’ relevance as a reflection of postmodern ideals—representing a plural and fragmented rather than unique and “essential” identity; rejecting the formal limits particular to the artist’s chosen medium by emphasizing the image’s concept rather than the photographic object; and questioning the originality of artistic authorship by denying the viewer a single, original source of appropriation, regardless of the haunting familiarity of her imagery. For many of these same reasons, feminist scholars were drawn to Sherman’s work as symbolic of feminism’s own contemporary concerns. Sherman’s construction and presentation of multiple identities through a single female subject offers some feminists a method through which to escape the oppressive “masculine gaze;” others see in this same quality of her work rather an affirmation and stabilization of the feminine stereotypes she conjures; and yet still others see this tendency in her work as reflective of both psychoanalytical and “constructionist” feminist assertions of gender stemming not from one’s biological sex but through the social conditioning and performance of that gender. Such interpretations represent only a fraction of the voluminous research conducted on these early series, and give one a sense of how the artist’s photographs invite and inspire comment as part of their reason for being. As Sherman herself has said of her work and its study, “I have to accept that there will be this range of interpretations that I can’t control, and don’t want to control, because that’s what makes it interesting to me.”
After strategically hiding her body, or eliminating it altogether, from her subsequent “Disaster” series (1986-89), her untitled "History Portraits" (1989-90) found the artist once again before the camera posed as stock characters—this time from the history of art, referencing the canonical works of the Renaissance and Baroque in the same way she had pop culture in earlier series. In Sherman’s next series’, “Sex Pictures” (1992) and “Horror and Surrealist Pictures” (1994-96), the artist’s body was replaced with surrogates in the form of disturbing, anatomically correct medical mannequins and doll parts pieced together into figural sculptures and still lifes photographed by the artist. Shortly thereafter, this use of both surrogate selves and dark humor were applied to the new medium of film when in 1997 she directed the film Office Killer. Starring actor Carole Kane as a Shermanesque protagonist, the film was modeled after the “Grade Z” American and artsy European horror films the artist has claimed as an influence.
In 2000, Sherman returned to self-portraiture in a series of large color photographs that combine elements of her mannequin photographs with her performative exploration of female roles. These works—which portray Sherman as different women posed before generic studio backdrops as if for a cheap commercial portraitist—are perhaps the closest the artist has come to returning to the narrative self-portraits of her earliest series. However, these large color prints feature confrontational subjects returning the viewer’s gaze, juxtaposing the seamless effects of her early transformations with the blatant artificiality of prosthetics in her fashioning of each individual’s physical attributes. As such, her treatment of the women at hand are a radical departure from the intimate, voyeuristic “film stills.” These characters, like Sherman herself, appear to be confronting not only the viewers but femininity and middle age, with a combination of fascination, defiance, and introspection. And the uncanny familiarity of each and every figure reminds one of the artist’s continued ability to conjure specters of womanhood that resonate with the memory and experience of her audiences.
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