Maximum Identity Flux

A major Cindy Sherman retrospective opens at MoMA probing gender and identity politics from all angles.

Since the advent of her career in the 1970s, the photographer Cindy Sherman has been one of the most exciting presences on the international art scene. With shape-shifting and slipperiness her go-to artistic mode, her restless and unpredictable works have uncannily traced some of the 20th century’s most pressing concerns surrounding gender and identity politics. This major retrospective at MoMA presents more than 180 of Sherman’s photographic works. The show demonstrates that her art is now more relevant than ever, particularly in an age in which the internet and social media are making identity more unstable than it ever has been before.

Although visitors to the exhibition will see Cindy Sherman in almost every photograph, curator Eva Respini warns against considering her work as self-portraiture: “Of course, it’s Cindy Sherman posing in all of the photographs, but the work is about the malleability of identity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and very much not about her as Cindy Sherman. It’s not a psychological portrait.” Indeed, the very lack of personality is what makes Sherman’s work so interesting. The “characters” she portrays aren’t really “characters” at all; they’re images, and they consistently draw attention to the artifice of their surface.

Respini suggests that much of Sherman’s work is about the ways in which “photography and the malleability of identity are intertwined.” Perhaps more than any other contemporary photographer, Sherman has consistently and meticulously unpicked the assumption that the camera doesn’t lie. Her staged photographs articulate again and again that what you see is not always what you get; that behind every hip and every eyelash are decisions about what the subject is and what gender and identity are. The ability of Sherman to play multiple roles and switch between young and old, and male and female, suggests the fundamental instability of gender roles.

At the heart of the exhibition is Sherman’s best-known series of photographs, Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), which she began when she was only 23 years old. The series, which can be seen in its entirety in the exhibition, is an extensive sequence of black and white photographs that forms a catalogue of female film stereotypes that recall Hollywood, Film Noir and European Art House films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The photographs depict well-known film clichés of female characters such as The Girl on the Run, The Devoted Housewife and The Luscious Librarian. Although none of the posed photographs are taken directly from any particular film moments, it’s a testament to Sherman’s uncanny powers of verisimilitude that many viewers leave convinced that they are staged moments from particular films they have seen. Sherman used hotter chemicals than normal to develop the pictures to give them a crackled and grainy texture, as if authentically from a film still. This is the special quality that makes these “film stills” so disconcerting; they deliver a sense of cosy familiarity with one hand while throwing a sucker punch, which overturns outrageous sexism, with the other.

Untitled Film Still #10 (1978), for example, shows a woman with what looks like a man’s anorak around her shoulders and a swirling 1960s skirt, crouching on the ground with a ripped paper shopping bag. Her legs are parted in a provocatively sexualised pose, her face has a blankness about it, and in her hand there’s a cardboard carton of 12 eggs. The image could be from any 1960s B-Movie, but at the same time it displays extremely careful choreography: the vertical lines of the oven door in contrast to the suggestively slanted diagonal lines of the character’s limbs. The woman in the image is not only sexualised but also domesticated (in the kitchen) and made helpless (she’s clumsily dropped her shopping bag). Her hand on the egg carton suggests the chauvinistic assumption of her supposed primary functions: caring for the absent but presumed husband, reproduction and child rearing. Similarly, Untitled Film Still #3 (1977) shows a young woman standing over a stove. She looks blank and bored. There are the usual domestic props: washing up liquid, an empty jam jar, and, right at the foreground of the shot, a phallic pan handle protruding across the lens, and aimed directly at the female character.

As an artist whose early work has been so concerned with the mediation of contemporary gender and identity politics through print and celluloid media, Cindy Sherman’s 21st century works have made the natural progression into probing the effect on identity of the other dominant media of our times: the internet. A series of photographs taken for Vogue Paris in 2007 shows a range of characters all dressed in the designer fashion label Balenciaga. Two friends prop each other up drunkenly, their empty or almost empty champagne flutes in their hands as they gawp glassily at the camera. Another character sways awkwardly with a huge smile and a tumbler. These photos are based on the “party portraits” that are commonly seen all over the internet where status and celebrity-hungry individuals pose with excessive pouts and smiles as soon as the camera is pointed in their direction. They strike right at the heart of the empty spaces of the internet; the power of the camera lens to vacate people’s senses. As is often the case with Sherman’s work, these fashion magazine photographs are heavily immersed and tangled in the mechanics of the logic that they also critique, giving the work a distinctive intricacy and potency.

As Respini points out, Sherman can be seen as one of our most potent presages of the particular effects of the internet era on the way we view ourselves and the constructedness of identity. The sense that internet chat-rooms, message boards and blogs engender of the possibility of fake personas, of being able to sculpt the self into any number of characters, has been at the heart of Cindy Sherman’s work since she began posing for her own meticulously engineered photographs in the 1970s. Respini points out that even Sherman’s early work can be extended into a celebration and critique of the values of a YouTube mentality where “everyone can be the star of their own little world.”

Technically, Sherman’s photographs are remarkable achievements. She rigorously produces everything required for each photograph herself, becoming a one woman film crew: model, photographer, costume designer, set designer, make-up artist, prosthetics expert and shot-director. While extremely impressive as an artistic feat, this sense of complete control is conceptually and thematically important to Sherman’s project. Her acts of transformation are intensely private processes, as detached as possible from her own persona and the way she is perceived by peers and by the public. This is an aspect of her work that Sherman herself has drawn attention to: “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures I never see myself. Sometimes I disappear.” In spite of her prevailing interest in how self image is filtered and affected by images in the media, Sherman’s photographs are pointedly unmediated self-transformations, determined as far as possible by the artist and not filtered through the lenses of external photographers, costume designers, and other mediators. There is aggressiveness to this gesture of self-control and autonomy that owes a great deal to the punk aesthetics of the era in which Sherman came to prominence. By taking on the active roles of the photographs to such an exclusive degree, Sherman escapes the sense of being the “subject” of her images, instead becoming as far as possible the agent of everything they are.The challenge she presents to the politics of the female subject is particularly relevant to series in which Sherman investigates the relationship between model and artist.

Her History Portraits (1989-1990) explore the relationship in Old Master portraiture between the male artist and the female sitter. Some of the photographs reference specific Old Master paintings, whereas others combine references from the styles of a number of different Old Masters. These photographs look both like studies of the portrait sitters in the course of the painting process, and like bizarre photographic reproductions of the paintings. In many of these photographs the make-up and wigs that Sherman uses tend towards exaggeration and even the Grotesque. There is a distinct sense of a Carnivalesque impulse in these works; the thrill of turning the traditional relationship in the portrait process on its head, taking on all the roles and critiquing the dynamics of the passive subject and active artist.

These works are some of the most overtly humorous and outrageous of Sherman’s career. Untitled #225 (1990), for example, references Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady (1490) but does so in an overtly mocking style; the decadent woman with pleated blond locks inspired by the original has one breast out of her deep blue kimono-style garb and it’s squirting a thin jet of breast-milk towards the camera. By caricaturing, in such a bold way, some of the assumptions that underlie the portrayal of the woman in the original, Sherman literally brings these aspects of The Old Masters’ paintings to the surface, emphasising the roles that women are moulded into by male artists.

In reference to the History Portraits, Sherman has spoken of the way she began to think of her face as a canvas in these pictures and make-up as the paint. As part of the concept of the series, the thickness of her powdery make-up creates the illusion of a painterly surface to the works. In the photographs this has a distancing and filtering effect, similar to the experience of looking at oil paintings in photographic reproduction. In this way she has incorporated the technology of the medium she is critiquing in a similar way to the Untitled Film Stills series, where the mechanics of set design and directing are of paramount importance to the sense of stagedness that those photographs convey.

Since her series of Society Portraits (2008), there has been an emergence in Sherman’s work of a major interest in the process of ageing. These portraits that recall magazine spreads of heiresses and society women examine the process of ageing in a culture that is obsessed with youth. The characters depicted all display evidence of the ageing process, from grey hair to wrinkles. For all, however, there’s also an implied narrative of deep concern and worry about showing their age. From an absurdly girlish pair of pink sandals in Untitled #466 to a nervous stare straight ahead and the clasping of a chair in #474, these women look as if they feel out of place, even as they carry with them a certain dignified whisper of the preconceptions about what it meant to be a lady in the formative years of their identities.

In 2010, this concern has carried over into Sherman’s most recent series of murals. In a significant move away from framed photographs presented mounted on the wall, Sherman has begun making work that crosses into the realm of architectural installation: massive murals on wallpaper pasted onto gallery walls. Rather than using make-up and wigs, Sherman has altered her appearance in these images through subtle Photoshop interventions in the arrangement and proportion of her facial features. Her characters in these works are ten feet tall or more, looming in front of a bizarre black and white rococo landscape as they represent the future, and the future is inflated, shifting identities. Sherman’s use of Photoshop has allowed her to move away from make-up and wigs and captures a distinctly natural-seeming sense of vulnerability in the faces of these characters. The rather frightening and humorous aspect of these pieces is that all of the assumed identities are just as artificial as any of her work; only the technology she has employed is less obvious to the eye.

Alongside the exhibition, MoMA in conjunction with MoMA Film will be screening a series of films from their extensive archival collections. Called Carte Blanche, the films in this strand of the exhibition have all been chosen by Sherman after she was given a no-restrictions invitation to select the films to screen. The range of films the artist has chosen is itself a compelling insight into her frenetic and diverse artistic interests. From the unadulterated 1970s gore-kitsch of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to the quietly seething Michael Haneke classic Funny Games (1997), Sherman’s choice of films demonstrates what her photographs consistently do: she’s an artist who likes to make you squirm. Cindy Sherman runs from 26 February until 11 June 2012 at MoMA, New York.

Colin Herd