Beyond Buildings


Cindy Sherman: Seeing the Art of it All

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Courtesy Cindy Sherman


Like many who love looking at architecture, I have the strange habit of waiting until people are out of the shot before taking a picture of a building or scene. Maybe that habit was at the root of the fact that on seeing the sprawl of the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art I was bored by the artist’s poses by the second gallery.


Ms. Sherman takes herself as the subject of her art, dressing up as everything from a clown to a Hollywood ingénue to the kind face-lifted lady of a certain age you might see at a MOMA opening.


She is very good at it. Acting as her own stylist and make-up artist, she can turn herself into a very convincing facsimile of anyone, alive or dead, existing or fictional (there is a terrific set of recreations of masterpiece paintings by the like of Caravaggio or Holbein), man or woman. After about a dozen variations–and there hundreds of works in the exhibition, all “untitled”—you feel as if you get the picture, so to speak.


Courtesy Cindy Sherman

If you stick with the exhibition long enough, you begin to realize is that the woman Cindy Sherman in all her permutations is an excuse. The point is the spectacle the artist Sherman creates through the use of make-up, special effects, prosthetics, and lighting. Though her characters might fascinate, they are the McGuffin in each work. What you really see is the artifice art can create. A fantasy world, sometimes riffing on places we know well, as in her black-and-white shots of herself looking up at the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and sometimes unlike anything we have ever seen, spreads out around the character.


At its most extreme, that artifice even invades her own figure, first in make-up and various props, from glasses to fake noses, she uses, and then dissolving her, in a frightening series of pictures from the late 1980s, into worm-eaten fragments, or just a set of eyes peering out from underneath armor-like plastic breasts and a mask.


Courtesy Cindy Sherman


The most accomplished photographs are not these discursions into surrealism, but the society lady series. This is obviously a world Sherman has come to know well, both as a woman and an artist, and she catches the exact way some of these doyens hold themselves, stare out you from the hollows left over from Botox injections, and pose themselves in settings that denotes their supposed history and power.


It is all fake, both in terms of the subject and in terms of construction. Sherman shows us that we are all creating roles for ourselves, and turning the world around us into a stage set. As good artists do, she carries that process, which is usually unconscious or performed in a way that we do not quite understand, into a realm of clarification where we actually see it.


The line between this kind of work and fashion photography is thin, and Sherman has crossed it at times, working with Balenciaga on one series, for instance. What is the difference between a critical creation of a persona and the spectacle we make of ourselves through fashion? And what is the difference between the way good fashion photography makes us aware of, but at the same time makes us desire, that absurdity, and the way art lets of revel in our voyeurism in the safety of white walls?


One thing I think is pretty certain: outing the artificial nature of our daily lives as well as the spatial, sculptural, and painterly forms of both our dreams and our nightmares, and turning that into a view into the stage set of the mind, is a pretty good way to start confronting the bland lies and repressed power struggles that shape our daily landscape without us noticing.


The exhibition is on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, through June 11, 2012, and will travel to: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 14–October 7, 2012); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (November 10, 2012–February 17, 2013); and Dallas Museum of Art (March 17–June 9, 2013).




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.