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In the decades since Cindy Sherman established her photographic practice as part of the Pictures Generation of the 1970s and early 1980s, her work has provoked polarized opinions. Her relationship with feminism in particular has been hotly debated, with some insisting that her work reveals and subverts the patriarchal nature of the gaze, and others suggesting that Sherman’s use of masquerade merely reinforces the visual dynamics of fetishism. As Jui-Ch’i Liu has suggested, Sherman’s own ambiguous position regarding feminism has only added fuel to these debates (Jui-Ch’i Liu, “Female Spectatorship and the Masquerade: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills,” History of Photography 34, no.1 (2010): 80). This ambiguity has become the backdrop for many discussions of the 2016 Cindy Sherman exhibition in Australia.
During its first decade, the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane has hosted a series of monographic exhibitions. In this case GOMA has assembled an exhibition of Sherman’s work since 2000. Initiated by outgoing curatorial manager Miranda Wallace and brought to fruition by associate curator Ellie Buttrose, the exhibition is comprised of fifty-six works, many of which were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s New York Cindy Sherman survey in 2012, but not seen in Australia before.
The exhibition centers around an oval space defined by high, curved walls featuring gigantic murals from 2010. This central void pulls the exhibition together with a gravitational force that disrupts a simple linear arrangement. It is bookended by two smaller rooms: one containing Sherman’s “headshots” (2000–2002) and a final room of her most recent works, in which Sherman mimics aging film-star types—an echo of her earlier Untitled Film Stills series (1977–80)—who represent various ingenues of black-and-white cinema. The exhibition traces the evolution of her highly staged photographic tableaux from the point at which she returned as her central subject and also embraced digital photographic techniques. It provides insight into her complex relationship with fashion and with a sustained study of the contradictions inherent to the aging female body.
The clown portraits (2003-4) that bridge the gap between her “headshots” and the rest of the exhibition have been dismissed in the past. Roberta Smith’s summary of them in 2004 was that they lacked the texture and liminality of her previous work: “giving full rein to the clowns brings them too close to the real thing and disturbs Ms. Sherman’s delicate balance between the masked and the real, the fabricated and the human” (Roberta Smith, “The Ever-Shifting Selves of Cindy Sherman, Girlish Vamp to Clown,” New York Times (May 28, 2004): E33). In the context of this exhibition, however, they act as a decoding device for the works that follow. While the headshots signaled a return from the dark, obscure work Sherman was producing through the 1980s and 1990s, they remain cruel enough in their dissection of common “types”—from tennis-club ladies to working-class waitresses—to reinforce misogynistic stereotypes. The clown images acknowledge this grotesquery, while avoiding the cruel proximity of that earlier vision.
While the subject of wealth and luxury forms part of the catalogue material, public discussion has focused on gender and female identity politics, in keeping with the predominant readings of Sherman’s work over time. In fact, the exhibition could be read as a meditation on class and taste. As she partners directly with the fashion labels Chanel or Balenciaga, the works engage in a dangerous dance. Sherman plays with fashion like a matador with a bull, keeping it close while weighing the risk that her work will eventually be skewered by it. She plays a similar game with the wealthy elite in her portrayals of socialites and aging trophy wives. Wallace describes Sherman’s relationship with the wealthy middle-aged subjects that comprise the “society portrait” works from 2008 as combining “competing feelings of empathy and revulsion” (20).
This tense contradiction vividly recalls Francisco Goya’s court paintings. There is a clarity in Goya’s portraits that make them compelling, but they are also cruel. His portraits of the Bourbon court revel in the pathos of loveless marriages, intrigues, and the reek of privilege. Goya’s portrayal of Maria Teresa de Borbon, Condesa de Chinchón (ca. 1800), for example, presents a blowsy woman, overwhelmed by her dress and hair rather than enhanced by them. This treatment would not appear out of place as a Sherman photographic reenactment. Like Goya, Sherman’s portraits walk a fine line. Viewers choose to read Goya’s portraits as an Enlightenment critique of Carlos IV’s inept power, but there is evidence to suggest that Goya’s relationship with that monarch’s patronage was often less critical than a contemporary reading would hope (Janis A. Tomlinson, “Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment,” Art Journal 48, no. 3 (1989): 262).
In our time, where stupid wealth is cast as a virtue, Sherman’s work might fulfill a similar role. As one of the world’s “greatest living artists,” she commands astronomical prices for her work. Her collectors are almost certainly drawn from the class she performs in the society portraits, which raises fascinating questions. Is the affection Sherman claims for her subjects enough to soften the blow of her satire? Perhaps the burden of wealth still requires the counterpoint of Vanitas as a reminder that we are all humbled by death? Is Sherman a contemporary court artist, studying the strength that age and wealth bring, while simultaneously revealing how it is undermined by the requirement to stay young and desirable?
Criticisms of Sherman’s work, and in particular her complex relationship with feminism, echo broader assumptions about feminism’s relationship with power. As Jessica Sprague-Jones and Joey Sprague suggest, the institutional success of Sherman’s work raises potentially troubling questions about its criticality. In their discussion of her work they conclude that her images are “disempowering play” rather than feminist critique, and they note that “while depicting scenes of human isolation, confusion, and suffering, Sherman manages to avoid depicting any agency or responsibility” (Jessica Sprague-Jones and Joey Sprague, “The Standpoint of Art/Criticism: Cindy Sherman as Feminist Artist?” Sociological Inquiry 81, no. 4 (2011): 428, 424).
Conversations in Brisbane have returned to this question of Sherman’s relative feminism: as a failing, occasionally as proof of feminism’s hollow shape-shifting presence in contemporary art, and/or the perception of its disproportionate influence. Similarly, at GOMA, women can be heard discussing these details. They stand before the photographs, mimicking their poses as female friends inevitably capture the visual echo on smart phones. Are women conditioned to interpret any representation, any visibility, as flattering—or are we simply acutely aware of the games of self-representation we are required to play? Does Sherman’s work give us the permission to publicly acknowledge our own constructed self?
The final works in the exhibition, a set of recently completed Hollywood-style portraits, have a Sunset Boulevard (1950) quality that lends them both dignity and pathos. Sherman’s return to her love of the visual codes of cinema is poignant but uncharacteristically soft. The overt prosthetics are gone, the lighting diffuse, and the makeup more forgiving. The audience in Brisbane appeared less excited by them than they did by the dangerous flirting with fashion and cruelty, but as a conclusion these works provide a taste of the pleasure that a younger Sherman may have taken from closely studying actresses like Gloria Swanson as an original point of inspiration. In fact, Norma Desmond’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard, “they had faces then,” could well function as a secondary title for much of Sherman’s work.
Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology