Cindy Sherman’s Presentations & Re-presentations at the Kunsthaus
Photographers are often hidden behind the camera; their person rarely the subject of our attention. American photographer Cindy Sherman turned herself into the subject of her own photography to explore the relationship between the photographer – the person behind the camera – and the person in front. Her face, however, remains relatively unknown from the public as make-up and prosthetics have transformed her into many characters.
Sherman, arguably the world’s first artist selfie-taker, works in series. The work of the artist extends far beyond the modern narcissistic obsession; Sherman’s wild yet eerily accurate representations of women aim to be understood as the work of a feminist photographer.
She never names her images so that viewers can read in them their own story and project meaning onto them. Showcasing 110 photographs by Cindy Sherman, the Kunsthaus Zürich’s exhibition entitled Untitled Horrors, celebrates this ambiguity.
A trip around Untitled Horrors is not a walk through time. The exhibition doesn’t run chronologically; instead, it presents together images from different series so Sherman’s wide imagination can be truly witnessed. We take a look at her career history along with the photo series found at Kunsthaus Zürich’s retrospective.
Cindy Sherman in the 1970’s
The Bus Riders series is among Sherman’s earliest work. Shot in 1976, these images weren’t seen by the public until 2000. Sherman started as she meant to go on, transforming herself into 15 wildly different personalities using as prop, a simple wooden chair representing a bus seat. Wig after wig appears; Sherman constructs identities so well it’s difficult to differentiate between the disguise and the person underneath.
69 black-and-white photos from Sherman’s second series, Untitled Film Stills, gained her international recognition. It’s ambiguous only in title. Sherman’s inspiration is clear; she appears in each shot impersonating crime drama-style actresses with a dash of film noir cynicism thrown in. Monochrome streets, pools and beaches often feature in the background while in the foreground, Sherman transforms herself into a blonde actress playing her role to perfection. A grainy and out of focus effect is a deliberate ploy evoking a sense of nostalgia. Sherman took three years to complete the entire series, only stopping when she had run out of clichés.
Cindy Sherman in the 1980’s
Centerfolds was Cindy’s first foray into fashion and colour, taking as inspiration the design of stylish magazine’s centre spreads and adding some pornographic influence. Twelve intimate shots show emotional young women (again, Sherman herself) posing on the floor or in bed; some confident and sultry, others vulnerable and scared. They articulate the female stereotype spectrum, showing how women are typically portrayed by mainstream media. Untitled #93, which appears in Kunsthaus’ exhibition, seems to represent the aftermath of a sexual crime with a blonde woman holding the bed covers over her body almost as a form of protection. This is a prime example of how purposefully vague Sherman’s work is. In an interview, Sherman discussed the picture, saying: “I think of that character as having just woken up from a night on the town. She’s just gone to bed and the sun is waking her up and she’s got the worst hangover, and she’s about to pull the sheets over her head. Other people look at that and think she’s a rape victim.”
The Fairy Tales series saw Sherman dramatically altering her appearance. She used prostheses – mannequin body parts fixed onto her own figure to create morbid photos reminiscent of traditional Brothers Grimm folk legends. “My biggest fear is a horrible, horrible death, and I think this fascination with the grotesque and with horror is a way to prepare yourself physically if, god forbid, you have to experience something like that,” she told Art in America back in 1997. Sherman’s six foot tall Untitled #153 depicts a mud-encrusted corpse motionless on a mossy rock – just one photograph where her intrigue with the macabre is evident. It later became a commercial success, selling for a record $2.7 million in 2010.
Disasters followed the same premise as Fairy Tales. A series full of crime scenes, it sometimes proves uncomfortable to look at with no detail left out. Untitled #170 sees a girl lying face down amidst a sea of pinecones, condoms and bloody underwear, leaving nothing to the imagination.
A first look at any of the photos from History Portraits boggles the mind. Each image closely resembles a painting to the point where you feel you’ve stepped into a 15th century art gallery. Sherman reinterprets the likes of Raphael’s La Fornarina, Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus and Jean Fouquet’s Madonna of Melun. Plastic body parts are again used in Untitled #216 – the Madonna of Melun lookalike – with Sherman dressed as Fouquet’s Madonna, attaching a prosthetic breast to her body which is exposed to the baby in her arms.
Cindy Sherman in the 1990’s
When it came to Sherman’s more erotic series, Sex Pictures, she removed herself from the frame preferring to remain firmly behind the camera. Sticking to mannequins, naked medical dummies placed in various open-legged positions graphically objectify women. Attacks on US freedom of expression in the late 80’s along with a government decree prohibiting grants for ‘obscene’ artwork prompted the explicit photo series. Not dissimilar to today’s Instagram censorship saga regarding female nipples, Sherman’s images proved nudity doesn’t always equate with being sexually attractive; her artificial genitalia making for the “unsexiest sex pictures ever made,” according to art critic Jerry Saltz.
Sherman continued to challenge beauty conventions with her Horror and Surrealist Pictures series. Many of the photographs are grotesque, many abstract and deceptive.
Untitled #324 is one of these works. A close-up of a chocolate-covered mannequin head complete with a wide-eyed expression misleads the viewer into thinking Sherman is the owner of those glassy eyes.
Cindy Sherman in the 2000’s
Hollywood/Hampton Types and Society Portraits again hone in on the representation of a variety of women. Seemingly Botoxed faces stare in Hollywood/Hampton Types; their struggle in trying to keep up with the ever-high standards of beauty clearly evident. Sherman’s Society Portraits are more opulent with grand backdrops yet the same sad, plastic surgery-filled faces.
Sherman threw out the fashion photography rule book when asked to produce images for Commes des Garçons’ Autumn/Winter collection in 1994. The clothing became part of the background with masked mannequins forcing their way to the forefront. None of the ‘physically perfect’ models used nowadays were anywhere to be seen. This was Sherman’s way of challenging the fashion industry and everything it stood for. Since then, she has created adverts for Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga in the same style. Her power over designers is unbounded; they are happy to loan her garments having no idea what the outcome will be. If anything’s guaranteed, it won’t be pretty. After all, she readily admitted to Harper’s Bazaar in 2012: “The models have always been the least interesting thing about fashion.”
When leaving the Kunsthaus Zürich, your mind will be full of questions about society and yourself. Thanks to Sherman’s boredom with the “typical idea of beauty”, our preconceptions about attractiveness are challenged in each and every one of Sherman’s photographs. How one woman can continue to morph into so many roles is a mystery. “The camera never lies.” Cindy Sherman challenged that stereotype too.
Cindy Sherman – Untitled Horrors
6 June – 14 September 2014
All images copyright of Cindy Sherman & courtesy of Kunsthaus Zürich Art museum