– Peter Zimmerman

While I can see the placement of identity as forefront and vital to the dialogue not only about Cindy Sherman but also that of portraiture in general, is there, potentially, something more that allows for the “Fairy Tales / Disasters” photographs to be seen as outside of the history of portraiture?

Cindy Sherman “Untitled” (1985)I feel that Untitled #153 might be the exception to the rule of the Fairy Tales/Disasters photographs. Because it is evocative of classic “Cindy” (the short, silvery hair that is reminiscent of the actress from Untitled Film Stills #1-5, the vacant stare towards a space outside of the visual field, etc.), one cannot view it without thinking of it as an extension of the history of Cindy “portraits”– and I mean “portraits” in that the casual consumer would associate referential subject with identity of subject/artist. These “portraits” show an evolution of what one may claim is “Cindy’s” evolution (perhaps it isn’t even an evolution but rather disjointed points without a continuum– thoughts?), so that when one sees the Untitled Film Stills (1978-1980) followed by Rear Screen Projections (1980), Centerfolds (1981), Pink/Red Robes (1982), Fashion (1983-84), and then the Fairy Tales / Disasters (1985-1989), the narrative of time is ostensibly unavoidable. But is there a way to see the Fairy Tales / Disasters photographs as trying to deflate that theory?

Untitled #140 (1985)“Untitled #140″ is a good example of the push away from the “natural” Cindy look that is adorned only by make-up or clothes, in that Sherman employs prosthetic parts to complete the subject– here it is a nose resembling that of a pig. However, the short, curly wig, human hands of five fingers, and eyes– those eyes!– all indicate “human;” however, how does one then compensate, or rather explain, the facial “deformity?” Because typically human characteristics outweigh the abnormal, the nose becomes the Other of the photograph– the mark of thwarted identity. So, then, the nose/mouth becomes something outside of the realm of the normal, and thus is read as existing for the sheer value of terror, or perhaps for thrusting the photographs outside of what is possible humanly and into the realm of the Surreal or fantasy. And if the latter is perceived as credible, then where do the photographs go, and from where to they come? Are they within the realm of an oeuvre, or are they outside of a Cindy Sherman narrative? Is there a Cindy Sherman narrative? Could they, potentially, have no context?

The last question is difficult to tease out, because the impetus for many of these pictures come from Fairy Tales à la Brothers Grimm, as you mention. For example, the “Fitcher’s Bird” book project combines text with Sherman’s photographs, immediately juxtaposing her new work with that of the old text– it is a direct response to the fairy tale. So, then, are all of these photographs only worthwhile because they refer to something else? Are the locked into their context? Perhaps they are; however, because they venture into the realm of the visual, and when divorced from text (as when they’re shown in exhibition form), couldn’t they be seen as context in and of themselves? And by this I mean couldn’t they be extensions of many of Sherman’s emotional explorations, so the preface is emotion and the manifestation is a whole new Cindy vernacular?

Untitled #150 (1985)Another example– “Untitled #150″ (1985). It looks a lot like Cindy (as we “know” her to look), and is ostensibly one of the least gruesome of the collection. Although naked within the visual field, no taboo sexual organs are on display, and thus her nakedness is removed from the immediate dilemmas that may arise from this photograph. Instead, there are two main questions that take the forefront: what is she looking at, and what is wrong with her tongue? The subject’s gaze is much more connected to an imagined object than the vacancy exhibited in works like #153 or #130, and so one begins to develop the same narrative patterns as exhibited in the readings of the Untitled Film Stills. Next is the most loaded and tough question about the photograph– the anatomical problem with the tongue. It appears much too large for the size of the subject, and its surface texture appears to be that of sticky hard candy. The lush red of the tongue is both reminiscent of the mythical representation of tongue as bright red (when in actuality it is much more pink and dull) and evocative of desire. Since the tongue is an organ that has so many sexual implications, the implied is then what is most intriguing and successful in this photograph. While the nakedness might seem to the be sexually charged element of the photograph, it seems that the tongue is the centerpoint of desire and lust– it functions orally and is needed for most varieties of foreplay. Then, with the fingers touching the tongue, it appears to be an invitation, a proposition, a relishing of pleasure.

Is “Untitled #150″ a portrait? I cannot see it as such; rather, I feel it is a photograph that is wholly divorced from the narrative of portraiture and instead exists within the context of fairy tale discourse and outside the realms of both fairy tale and portraiture. I feel that the Fairy Tale / Disasters photographs announce a vital break from Sherman’s oeuvre as seen as a continuum; however, the announcement is neither verbal nor visually denoted. Instead, the sheer fact that Sherman employs prosthetics and ventures into the realm of sheer fantasy and the Surreal makes these photographs beyond the Other of her oeuvre and instead a wholly different thread. While one can make connections because of the artist (since Cindy Sherman produced all of the images), could the Fairy Tale / Disasters be seen as a wholly new motion by Sherman?


1 Comment so far

  1. Elizabeth on November 9, 2008 11:02 am

    More questions than answers – I think Joan must be onto something here with her images as portrait idea since it is generating conversation. Asumming these images are portraits, how do you analyze them? The traditional vocabulary of painted portraits do apply. These images seem to be beyond discussions of balance, form and color. So teasing out the artist’s intent seems the most important aspect of these images. I am interested to see how you will do that as the theme evolves. I have a very basic question, which I am sure will uncover my inexperience in this area, but what makes these images art? Can the pieces stand on their own or must one look at the entire body of work? How do we know there a meaning to these images beyond their ability to shock the viewer?

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind