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Asa Berger’s book An Anatomy of Humor divides comedy into four general functional categories: language, logic, identity, and action (Asa Berger, An Anatomy of Humor, New Brunswick: Transaction, 1993, 6). He then further breaks the collective identity into fourteen individual types of humor that deal with character: before/after, burlesque, caricature, eccentricity, embarrassment, exposure, grotesque, imitation, impersonation, mimicry, parody, scale, stereotype, and unmasking (7). To walk through the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), curated by the Museum of Modern Art’s Eva Respini, is to take a visual tour of this entire genre of humor. Sherman’s methodical exploration of persona touches on every one of these themes, often bearing down on the humor of the work until it threatens to rupture it. The most successful bodies of work in Sherman’s oeuvre are those in which the force of the parodic effects nearly demolish the subject of the photograph, teetering productively between comedy and tragedy.
These different thematic bodies of work are divided among successive galleries of the museum, creating a chronological tour of Sherman’s groundbreaking photographic self-portraiture from the last forty years. In the wide hallway entrance to the exhibition is Untitled #488 (1976), a collage made from cut gelatin silver prints mounted to board. Every paper-doll-sized photo features Sherman holding coy poses in a white cuffed and collared mini-dress with chunky white Mary Jane shoes and large round glasses. Like individual components of a stop-motion animation, each varies only slightly from its predecessor, and the effect is part chorus line, part Muybridge motion study. The work is obviously art-historically conscious, but it manifests a sexualized, rather than scientific, amalgamation of cinema and photographic conventions. Though this is an early work, Sherman, all legs and owlish glasses, is clearly already aware of social mores and how photography interacts with cultural norms of fashion and the projection of a persona. Her flirtatiously parted lips and direct gaze give a taste of what is to come in the later work that experiments with the conventions of advertising, fashion, and the conventions of female identity.
The next gallery contains Sherman’s most well-known body of work, her series of Untitled Film Stills that began in the fall of 1977. The seventy black-and-white photos on display provide a nearly comprehensive inventory of stereotypical film roles for women. Sherman personifies the housewife (#20, 1978), the ingénue (#58, 1980), the madwoman (#29, 1979), the movie star (#7, 1979), and the betrayed woman (#27, 1979), among others. It is no wonder that this series continues to serve as the hallmark of Sherman’s career, because in looking at photo after photo it becomes obvious that American women are still playing these roles to a great extent. Though the hairstyles and costumes may have evolved over the years, it is fascinating to note that behavioral standards for women have not. The Untitled Film Stills remain, all too unfortunately, completely relevant.
At the same time, the work is also funny and even courageous. By putting her finger on the pulse of socially scripted feminine identity, Sherman’s work does what many great comedians do: expose a tacit code through mimicry and parody. The same is true for the work in the next gallery, a series that examines the tropes of fashion-industry images. Untitled #122 (1983) is a striking life-size photograph of a blonde woman in a chicly tailored navy blue tuxedo suit. The camera picks up the soft opulence of the fabric, but the woman inside it is a column of barely contained rage. Her hands are clenched into fists and her hair waves angrily over her head like Medusa’s snakes, obscuring most of her face but leaving one furious bloodshot eye exposed. Her graceless pose and raw emotional state contradict the refinement of the luxury garments, exposing the lie that satisfaction follows sumptuousness. Working in opposition to the traditional promotion of couture, Sherman’s fashion icon is not only unsatisfied, she is completely unhinged.
By contrast, the next room contains Sherman’s 1981 Centerfold series, commissioned by Artforum magazine, and after the unambiguous critique of the first two galleries, it can seem at first like a bit of a retreat. The saturated chromogenic color prints in wide, horizontal formats are not explicitly challenging, yet Sherman extends the emotional investigation that began with the fashion photos. Though the appraisal is in some ways less overt, she continues to develop semiotic cues through the incorporation of fabrics beyond mere clothing. Sherman uses props such as the rumpled flowered cottons on a bed (#89), a homespun looped rug underneath her recumbent form (#91), and smooth black sheets drawn to her chest (#93) to create narratives around the body. Centerfold #87 in particular relies on material construction to suggest a back-story for the role she plays. Sherman lies on the floor wearing an old work shirt rolled to the elbow and stained, fraying patched jeans, hip-slung to expose high-waisted, cheap cotton underpants. Yet clutched to her head is an orange mohair blanket. A token of affluence—downy, warm, soft—the mohair combined with the dreamy look on her face gives the photograph its wistful adolescent air and emotional punch.
Sherman often does an about-face from one body of work to the next. Conceivably, she tired of her own ambivalent projections of marred innocence, so the subsequent group of portraits is replete with scenes that range from the aberrant to the repulsive, such as #175 (1987), a close-up beach scene of crushed candy and vomit on a sandy towel. Amid the revolting mess rests a pair of mirrored sunglasses, reflecting Sherman’s horrified death mask in miniature. #155 (1985) shows a nude Sherman with a prosthetic derriere lying in some foliage. It is unclear whether she is dead or simply offering herself from behind, her face turned back to the viewer, feet touching each other coyly as an Edenic plastic snake ribbons across the lower part of the photograph. These macabre scenes traffic in exposure and the grotesque, but their directness robs them of the nuance and complexity of her prior works. Likewise, the Clown Portraits in the adjoining room mimic their circus predecessors too closely to deliver the subtle punches of previous bodies of work. Neither menacing nor funny, they are straightforwardly related to comedy in a way that robs them of potential power.
Much has been made of Sherman’s membership in the appropriation-based Pictures Generation and her stance of criticality toward the tropes of feminine identity. More unrecognized, however, is that for Sherman to personify these roles, even briefly, there must be a motivational, even aspirational desire. Instead of only discussing the work in terms of a lofty critical distance, it should be acknowledged that to play a role is to embody it, less an abstract concept and more a living thing that replicates an object of desire. The final two galleries of the exhibition contain works that more openly manifest a simultaneous yearning and contempt. The Head Shots series (2000–02) of “would be or has-been actors posing for head shots” evinces multiple personae united by the common goal of appearing on the big screen. Yet, unlike the Untitled Film Stills, this group of photographs seems less externally motivated as a reaction to formulaic representations of femininity in cinema, and rather more propelled by an internal desire to inhabit a cast of wannabe stars as an acknowledgment of the hunger for fame. Each one, from the dreadlocked university girl of Untitled #399 (2000) to the folksy Midwestern patriot in Untitled #402 (2000), demonstrates a distinct character; but their longing for recognition unites them.
Similarly, the photographs in the final room of the exhibition reveal their subjects’ ambition for affirmation of their status. The Society Portraits (2008) are replete with signifiers of wealth: fur, silk, diamonds, pearls, and the interior settings of chateaux and ballrooms. The Sherman-women in this series hold the erect posture of privilege and luxury, but their squared shoulders are nearly combative. With eyes often narrowed just short of a glare—as though in conflict with the viewer—the overall affect is less of enveloping luxury and more of a haughty froideur. Given Sherman’s own status as an art icon, which has surely brought with it money and entrée to exclusive circles (an Untitled Film Stills print, Untitled #96, was sold for $3.89 million in 2011), one might guess why she would be interested in simultaneously condemning and lauding the abundance that these women are so eager to flaunt. Additionally, there is an uncanny quality to these pictures due in part to their correspondence to the real woman they portray. Sherman’s versions mirror the artificiality of their unfeigned counterparts with the simultaneous tautness and sagging of plastic surgery, or the synthetic look of an over-made-up face. The mimicry here becomes a kind of unmasking, where the extant woman that Sherman copies is already a caricature; so that quality only needs to be manifested and captured to be exposed as a burlesque. Unlike some of her other bodies of work, this series does not need amplification strategies to become a parody—the joke is already in place, ready to be enclosed in an ornate gold-leaf frame.
The retrospective is laid out at SFMOMA in such a way as to bring the viewer full circle through Sherman’s career. At the entrance to the exhibition, Sherman’s latest work, a heroic-scale photographic mural, is situated directly across from the small photographic collages, some of her earliest creations. The decision to begin and end the exhibition this way is clever, inviting a comparison between the first and last works for similarities and differences; but it also unwittingly implies an elegiac closure, suggesting that Sherman’s work has come to an end. After a thorough tour of the galleries, this reviewer fervently hopes that it has not.