At the Vancouver Art Gallery until March 8
For an artist whose oeuvre has centred almost entirely on images of herself, Cindy Sherman has revealed very little of herself in her work.
Yes, that is her face we see in that canny re-creation of Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus, and in that vaguely disturbing photograph of a thrift-store-attired clown, and in that monumentally scaled image of an imperious-looking high-society matron. If none of them tell the viewer anything about the woman who made them, that is entirely by design. None are self-portraits; as Sherman told Apollo magazine earlier this year, “I’m trying to erase myself more than identify myself or reveal myself. That’s a big, confusing thing that people have with my work: they think I’m trying to reveal these secret fantasies or something. It’s really about obliterating myself within these characters.”
The VAG’s current Sherman retrospective, organized in collaboration with the U.K.’s National Portrait Gallery, features more than 170 pieces spanning the influential American conceptual artist’s career, from her early-1970s student days at Buffalo State College to today.
One of the most fascinating is Untitled #479, from 1975, which offers a rare peek behind the curtain at Sherman’s early process. The 23 hand-coloured silver gelatin prints show her gradually transforming from bookish-looking art-school student to glammed-up, cigarette-puffing party girl. It’s one of the few times that Sherman allows us to see her as herself, and it’s a good starting point for an exhibition that takes gallerygoers from high fashion to the knowingly grotesque and back again.
Reams have already been written about the themes in Sherman’s work. Her 1981 “Centerfolds” series, for example—commissioned by, but never published in, Artforum—knocks the male gaze for a loop as, instead of offering the female body up for the titillation of the viewer, Sherman subverts expectations by imbuing each image with psychological tension and even implied violence. In the “Chanel” series, for which she was given access to clothing items from the design house’s archives, Sherman plays with the artifice of fashion photography, accessorizing Chanel’s high-style pieces with cheap wigs and striking awkward stances. That she has incongruously Photoshopped herself into rugged Icelandic landscapes heightens the dissonance between couture fantasy and uncomfortable reality.
Sherman is certainly calling our attention to these things with intent, but, in much the same way that she attempts to submerge her identity beneath the carefully constructed surfaces of the characters she presents, the artist has claimed that she would prefer to have viewers draw their own conclusions. “I don’t want to have to explain myself,” she once said. “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”
Fair enough. After all, the espousing of theoretical bullshit is best left to art critics, who have venerated Sherman and helped cement her status as one of the most important artists of the past 40-odd years. And rightly so; even among the other members of the New York City milieu known as the Pictures Generation (Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, et al.), Sherman stands as a singular talent. Another artist with connections to that scene, Vancouver’s own Vikky Alexander, has a concurrent VAG retrospective, titled Extreme Beauty. It’s worth viewing both shows, if only to see how radically different two approaches to feminist-informed photo-based conceptual art can be.