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This article was written on 19 Jul 2012, and is filled under Reviews.

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Cindy Sherman: MoMA’s Career Survey of Photography’s Shapeshifting Chameleon

by Lily Koto Olive

MoMA recently exhibited a career survey of endlessly imaginative and prolific post-modernist feminist artist, NYC’s own Cindy Sherman. The exhibit, which closed on June 11th, featured 171 of her photographs hanging in 5 differently colored spaces. Eva Respini, associate curator, and Lucy Gallun, curatorial assistant in the department of photography, undertook the challenge of combining decades of work by attempting to assemble the exhibition into roughly thematic galleries.

Sherman has created an extremely large body of work since she emerged with Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980, a series of 69 black and white photographs that earned her international recognition. This series, which starts the show off, contains images of Sherman posing in different roles and settings, staged frames much like American film noir stills from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #219, 1990

Sherman tackles the hardest of subjects full on and slips in and out of a myriad of roles while doing so. Her exhibit chronicles her assuming stereotypical female film roles (“Untitled Film Stills” series); the works continue into her history portraits series (from 1989 -1990) where she poses in the manner of old master portraits, paying homage by donning the guise of characters from Raphael, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Ingres masterpieces (Sherman created these images while she was in Rome, and surrounded by the works). Her “Disasters and Fairytales” series sits next to a room full of carnivalesque images of Sherman as a sort of maniacal psychedelic clown. Another room over reveals Cindy in the role of an American housewife, posed as a tennis mom in one, aging tan Southern belle in another, and in some looking like a Glamour Shot image created in perhaps a suburban mall in the early 1990’s. Ending the exhibit were her monumental “Society Portraits,” in which the artist poses as aging, wealthy women, grappling with questions of cultural obsessions with class identity, aging and status.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #465, 2008

Sherman gained notoriety for her challenging conceptual portraiture, staging set-ups of created characters stemming from female stereotypes, almost exclusively using herself as a model, and consistently working alone without the aid of assistants. Her works push boundaries of identity and gender, critically examining the role images of women play in our culture. Sherman leaves all of her photographs untitled, preferring the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Any titles that have been linked to her works can be attributed to curators and gallerists, not Sherman herself.

Sherman has said of her self-portraits: “Some of them I’d hope would seem very psychological. While I’m working I might feel as tormented as the person I’m portraying.” Viewing her work on display and en masse makes this statement seem undeniable. Glancing back through the decades on display, the difficult roles and scenarios she has undertaken are extremely psychological. Her willingness to live out ghastly scenarios such as near death suicide scenarios, rape victims and forlorn housewives through her roleplay undoubtedly must take quite a toll.

In 1985, Sherman began to periodically remove herself from her photos. She arranged medical mannequins and prosthesis, often in Grotesque scenarios, hacked up, limb upon limb, human form reduced down and rearranged. During this ten-year period, she also produced works using these medical mannequins poised in sexually explicit poses, extremely reminiscent of Surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer’s mutated dolls. These works, aptly dubbed her “Sex” series, contain images she produced in direct response and retaliation to the censorship and National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy of photographers Robert Mapplethorpe (whose sexually explicit homoerotic images triggered funding debate) and Andre Serrano (whose famous image “Piss Christ” quite literally caused riots on the streets by Christian conservatives who viewed the image as a blasphemous attack on their beliefs).

These horrifically abject works from the late 80’s, dubbed “Disasters and Fairytales,” are extremely difficult to view. The viewer is confronted by images that tackle mortality and fear through set ups of gruesome crime scenarios that include human excrement and vomit. You can feel Sherman’s intensity projecting off the walls, and it takes courage to stand in front and take it all in. Sherman has said of her more disturbing images, “it prepares you psychically for the potential for violence in your own life. Or your own death. I think it’s also a way to be removed enough from it to even laugh at it. It just further prepares you for something that you don’t look forward to having to experience.”

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 2010/2012

Coinciding with the MoMA retrospective was an exhibit of large-scale works at Metro Pictures Gallery in Chelsea. In these works, Sherman photographed herself in 1920’s haute couture Chanel pieces, alone in desolate landscapes, images she gathered while shooting in Iceland during the volcanic eruption in 2010. The harshness of the backgrounds and the deadpan gazes of the subjects create feelings of odd alien landscapes, at times alluding to 19th century landscape painting. These photos were based on an insert Sherman did for Dasha Zhukova’s Garage magazine.

The overall image of the artist that one leaves with after having viewed the works within the MoMA retrospective collectively is one of a tireless, endlessly creative woman who is unafraid to take on any role or subject. The inspiring variety that exists within her body of work raises the bar for artists everywhere. Undoubtedly Sherman will forge ahead in her work, paving the way and continuing to influence and shape the direction and future of contemporary art.

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