Cindy Sherman became famous by taking her own picture, but keeping herself out of it. Countless other selves, some of them male, occupied her body, allowing Sherman to avoid the camera even as she filled its lens. The artist’s elusive, mercurial presence is part of her early work’s enduring power and fascination. Refusing autobiography, squelching vanity, she disappeared into her own cinematic fictions, and inhabited each new role as both everywoman and no one: the stranger in the mirror.
Though two pre-“Film Stills” series of recently published and exhibited 1976 photos found Sherman in blackface, chest hair, and a fake mustache, the work in the following five years involved little in the way of disguise. Because her first roles weren’t diva performances but supporting parts, she could transform herself with a wig, a coat, a touch of makeup, or a fleeting expression. Even now the subtlety of Sherman’s metamorphoses in the reputation-making “Film Stills,” the “Centerfolds,” and the rear-projection series, all produced between 1978 and ’81, is thrilling. With deceptive effortlessness, the artist renders herself nearly unrecognizable and largely unremarkable: a frump, a flirt, a furtive housewife, a sexy secretary, a face in the crowd. Because she chose to impersonate such minor characters, Sherman’s work invited empathy, not envy. Her beauties were no more than bit players, the “Centerfold” girls only the anxious, rumpled flip side of Playboy‘s airbrushed honeys.
But in the mid ’80s, just about the time her work seemed to be settling into a riffing groove on the subject of women’s fragile place in the world, Sherman veered off into the operatic and the grotesque. The isolated women in her early pictures, while far from clichés, had become easy targets for psychological readings and cozy feminist bonding. Sherman was ready to move on, ready for an over-the-top star turn, but only if she could be a freak. The new work was as liberating and exciting for the viewer as it was for her. Paradoxically, it allowed Sherman to step into the pictures’ gaudy limelight and to escape even further into her roles.
She played fairy-tale witches and ogres, crazy ladies, weird sisters, and hags. She lost herself behind bulbous noses, rubber tits, and huge joke-shop buttocks, and little by little she receded from the work. At the height of her popularity, in a sensational fuck-you gesture to her eager collectors, she produced an entire show of gross-out landscapes—liberally heaped with fake vomit, hair, mold, and shit—that reduced her presence to the edge of the frame, sometimes only as a vestigial plastic limb. Who could have imagined such gorgeously hideous work? It was the end of the ’80s, and Sherman had hit a peak so bizarre and brilliant it was a little scary.
And it only got scarier. Sherman vanished from the work that followed, substituting ever more damaged and degraded mannequins and prostheses for her already dehumanized self. Though plenty of other artists were exploring sex, revulsion, and the body as battlefield with the onset of AIDS, no one did body horror with quite the same wicked exuberance as Sherman. At first, she was like George Grosz let loose in the windows of Saks with a satchel of toys from the Pleasure Chest, and the results were alarmingly exhilarating. But this time Sherman didn’t move on, and work that had once seemed bracingly raw and right on target began to seem hysterical and obsessive. Made over and over again, her point got blunted, then all but lost. Last year, when she was reduced to mutilating Barbies and GI Joes, the work seemed choked into incoherence by anger, pain, and confusion. One slashed doll-part over the line, Sherman had taken ugliness as far as it could go, and, though the process was apparently cathartic, the pictures on the wall looked more like evidence of a psychotic break than an artistic breakthrough.
So it’s a relief to see that, after more than a decade, Sherman’s back in the picture, elusive as ever but in fine form. Most of her new photographs were shown first at Gagosian’s Los Angeles gallery last spring; 11 from that group, already widely reproduced, are joined at Metro by 11 more previously unexhibited pictures. All are studio portraits in a style more deliberately generic than any of Sherman’s earlier extended series; each depicts a seated woman self-consciously confronting the camera. The subjects encompass a motley sisterhood united by bad makeup and failed aspirations—women clinging to dashed but not yet discarded dreams of wealth, fame, or simple happiness.
The Gagosian group was apparently done with L.A. in mind, and includes women shunted to the margins of showbiz: again, the bit players, never the stars. The lady in purple velvet with too many gold necklaces and clownish white circles around her eyes might be a minor studio executive’s wife with a few walk-on credits in her past. Dazed with disappointment, she manages to look valiant, even anticipatory; maybe her husband will get promoted before he leaves her and they’ll get a better table at the Ivy. Other, younger women have turned rejection into rapaciousness. They used to model, but now they’re dog groomers or hair stylists or exercise-salon fitness experts; some of them give Swedish massages in a little bungalow off Sunset. Sherman endows them with an air of bright defiance that doesn’t entirely cover their desperation or hurt. One, with a bright yellow flip hairdo and a fat lip job, clasps her hands girlishly and looks up as if for salvation. Though none is forthcoming, she seems less delusionary than determined; like the other women here, she has a facade that may be cracking, but it’s carefully maintained.
The show’s newer half is devoted to similarly unfulfilled New York and East Coast types, from Fifth Avenue matrons to Jersey mall chicks. Here, too, Sherman’s satire is sharp but shaded with affection. The brittlest of these women, self-satisfied social climbers in gowns and jewels, aren’t cut much slack, but many more have a hard-won feistiness or stubborn hopefulness that Sherman inhabits with particular verve. If few of these gals are lovable, they’ve all got a kind of nutty integrity. Their attempts at tastefulness are pathetic, but Sherman never seems to hold her subjects up for ridicule. Even when she edges into grotesquerie (with makeup so expressionist it approaches painting), she’s not cruel, only savagely comic.
Without muffling her wit, Sherman returns from doll-decapitation hell kinder and gentler. Don’t expect some Family of Man sentimentalist spreading sweetness and light, but Sherman seems relaxed, refreshed. For the first time in years, she allows us to project our fantasies onto her work rather than repelling our attention. Though the new series is transitional, not masterful, Sherman’s presence, however evanescent, signals a return to a position of strength from an increasingly isolated outpost of alienation and anger.