Cindy Sherman is radiant in the spotlight at present: 360 degrees diamantine. All eyes have turned into magpies’ for her latest at Metro Pictures, while at Skarstedt Gallery, images from Sherman’s 1989 series History Portraits hang once more. I bumped into the veteran photo editor Alice George at Mary Ellen Mark’s dog-filled holiday party last night; she enthusiastically touted the similarities between the austerity and sophistication of the Metro Pictures show and the distinguished portraits uptown.
For years now, Sherman’s bag has been staged photographic self-portraits. If there were ten artworks from the last 30 years reproduced in a newspaper article, one of Sherman’s would likely feature. She’s persistent. With their props, prostheses, and patience in pursuit of the most telling expression and posture, the photographs have chipped at the psyche of contemporary people–the way they attempt to present themselves, and the way they cannot help but present themselves. The work is often savage, but it’s never less than honest, or anything but revealing.
The subjects of Sherman’s current show, in broadest designation, are affluent American white women from middle to old age. More particularly, they are ripe broads with proudly artificial and comic surgery, bowling ball breasts with pencil-eraser nipples, cowboy-hat-wearing trophy wives from Scottsdale or Orange County. They are deteriorating and doolally bluebloods: sometimes cute, with big bows and the wide eyes of little girls, and sometimes frail, sympathetic Brooke Astor types. They are taut, terrifying, expressionless ladies of the manor, with devastating power and no compassion, eyes red-rimmed with sadness and embalmed in gin. Their stories are boosted by their backdrops, deliberately obvious Photoshop jobs with the Vaseline-gauze sex style of David Hamilton or the airbrushed care of a ’50s professional portrait studio. A heavy and usually too-chunky frame rounds out the scene. Sherman’s newest photographs tell individual life stories, and for everything her subjects have in common there is another detail, a tic or a style, that makes their world–their past, present and future–unique.
I didn’t see how the show has been selling, but I suspect it has done very well. Sherman is seasoned enough to aim big, to bravely untether herself from the private, pedantic scope of today’s insider art and work for and about a real population, and a whole country. These pictures will make sense, they’ll read and they’ll inform at a future point in art history when everyone has forgotten the trifling things we’re fascinated with today, or next month. The irrelevance of taste aside–these pictures fly in the face of everything I am drawn to aesthetically, and one can only imagine how unsettling they would be to live with–this is work to hold on to.
I took a group of seminar students to a bunch of galleries during Art Basel Miami Beach, Chelsea’s most desolate week. It is a wonderful time to see shows because they’re quiet, dampened, and universally staffed by the kids who weren’t invited to work the fair. These are low-down-the-totem-pole folk, janitors and dogsbodys and archivists who have barely seen daylight at their job, let alone played the front desk. It’s good to see them and say hello.
About a minute after we entered Sherman’s show, a touring group of affluent white, middle- to old-aged American women walked in. With ermines, plastic surgery, stiff hairdos, gold, and expensive shoes, the exact species of the photographs were now in the gallery, facing mirror images of themselves. They shunted through the space, clustered as if for warmth, sending up a birdlike song of gentle chatter. They were happy. The ever-noted callousness of Sherman’s eye, now turned on them, had no effect. Certainly a few of the group were oblivious, but most were really looking, and they didn’t see anything wrong. They couldn’t dispute the depictions, because Sherman’s aim is true. These women were self-aware but not self-loathing. Unnerved and hysterical at encountering this scene, I fled the gallery to collect myself.
These women, both the real ones and the ones played by Sherman in her art, are hyper-complex embodiments of contemporary themes in class, consumption, gender relations and aging. At the same time they are people who get through life by putting one foot in front of the other. There isn’t much to analyze here, nothing more than the fact that life as it’s lived can be limitlessly uncanny and educational, and that, to succeed, all art really has to do is be open to it and keep moving forward.-Bones
Should you be on 79th Street, Skarstedt Gallery’s Sherman show is up until Saturday. Metro Pictures, at 519 West 24th, is conveniently running theirs through the 23rd, perfect for breaks from retail or family.
Next week, Bones casts an eager eye on New York in 2009: art to expect, art to hope for, and art that is already happening if we knew where to look.