Response #2: “Disasters” as The Breaking Point

November 9, 2008 |  Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Response #2: “Disasters” as The Breaking Point

– Peter Zimmerman

You write, “I see the portrait as the framing of the human face within a 2-D plane, using the artist’s own emotive reading of the face in order to create a sense of the sitter.” I feel this coding of the portrait verges on the archaic, thereby not allowing for more plastic conceptions of the form. If the portrait then requires a face not only for its creation but its justification, how then do we account for the “Disasters” series, in which very few faces are ever centered, or even seen? With your definition, we cannot, and thus I urge for a shift in rhetoric in discussing the 1986-1989 photographic works of Cindy Sherman.

I propose that the “Disasters” series explodes notions of portraiture and thrusts Sherman’s work onto a new path of theoretical and artistic exploration. However, these photographs are read as coming from a certain place– a history, a context, or an idea that has been informed by past aesthetic pursuits. Thus, if we are going to make connections between the “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980) / ”Centerfolds (1981),” etc. with the “Disasters (1986-1989)”, then the visual field must be either made concrete or discussed as a more theoretical model. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #3, 1977For instance, if the connection is simply subject matter, then we’d contrast the vomit from “Disasters” with the books and cigarettes from the “Untitled Film Stills.” Or, the contemporary 1970s/1980s clothing and patterns in the “Centerfolds” and “Rear Screen Projections” contrast with the ambiguous pieces of clothing, hair, crumpled pieces of paper, flies, cakes, towels, sunscreen, inflatable dolls and masks from the “Disasters.” “Untitled #168″ (1986)However, if we take it on a more theoretical level, the visual fields of the “Film Stills” represent boundaries within which women are restricted, either figuratively or architecturally. In “Disasters,” Sherman takes the fantastical and exploits it. She allows the women, of which there are few, to move inside and outside of specific scenes and backdrops. Therefore, the visual field has no boundaries except a photographic frame. Perhaps the lack of human subjects as the focus lends itself to this interpretation, or perhaps the sheer chaos of the objects seems to push it outside the Normal. But does that then make the “Disaster” pictures the Other of Sherman’s oeuvre?

Not necessarily. If we use oppositional logic and presume that the Normal requires an Other in order for it to exist, and we then assume that the “Disasters” are not of the Normal, then it must occupy the Other status; however, I believe there is an alternative to this reading that is equally compelling, and I see this as being informed by environment. Therefore, what context(s) do we have for the “Disasters” photographs?

First, the actual oeuvre of Cindy Sherman’s work. We go from black & white explorations of self image to investigations of photographic/cinematic code and then a more intense scrutiny of the female/feminine body. The shift from the “Fashion” photographs to the “Fairy Tales” is incredibly telling– 1985 being the moment where prosthetics are entered into the equation and backdrops become increasingly unfamiliar. Pictures like Untitled #150 (1985)“Untitled #150” and “Untitled #155” present radically new spaces into which Sherman has placed her characters, and so the division between the earlier work and the “Fairy Tales” is visually coded. The use of emotional instability in the form of mania is not necessarily new either, as many characters in the “Fashion” series present a crazed expression (“Untitled #138″ (1983)for example “Untitled #138”). How, then, can we read “Fairy Tales” as belonging to Sherman’s oeuvre, instead of existing outside of the context? This becomes increasingly difficult; however, I believe the presence of recognized human corporeal elements anchors the photographs. Certainly the manipulation of fantasy marks a shift in Sherman’s work, but it is only a shift, not a break.

The second point for context is/was Cindy Sherman’s marketability. After celebrated exhibitions throughout the first half of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman was considered a celebrity artist, despite her rejection of the public spotlight. She had a slew of solo exhibitions, was included in catalogs from such esteemed institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Taft Museum, the Stedelijk Museum in Vienna, and the Museum of Modern Art, and celebrated art historians and critics, such as Andy Grundberg, Rosalind Krauss, Peter Schjeldahl, John Szarkowski, Roberta Smith, Douglas Crimp, and Judith Williamson, all had a hand at trying to figure out Cindy Sherman’s work. Although initially aided by NEA grants, Sherman had become a veritable figure in the art market in her own right; however, she has often cited the push for the “Disasters” photographs as coming from an urge to reject the canonization process of the art market. Therefore, she made photographs that one would feel uncomfortable hanging above their couches in the living room.

Lastly, the context of the “Disasters” photographs, I feel, comes from the codes of macabre and the grotesque. Certainly Sherman has flirted with these codes previously, especially seen in “Fashion” and “Fairy Tales,” which is why the “Disasters” pictures are not outside of the realm of possibility for Cindy Sherman. For example, the implication of horror in the “Film Stills,” followed by the off-putting takes on “Fashion” (“Untitled #138″ (1983)see “Untitled #138” especially) signal a definite interest in the darker shades of humanity. As the 1980s progress, Cindy Sherman’s work becomes increasingly difficult to digest, because she employs the grotesque as a tool to distance the audience. While she has spoken to the elements of humor in the “Disasters” pictures, oftentimes this reading is absent, due to the objects within the visual field whose history is rooted in pain, terror, and tragedy. Items such as vomit, clumps of hair, debris, skulls, and dirt bring to mind destruction, death, and sadness. One could claim that these shades of the human condition can be also seen in the “Film Stills” and “Centerfolds,” but the difference is that they are coded within the corporeality of woman, so the running makeup on the characters in “Untitled #27 (1979)” and ““Untitled #30″ (1979)Untitled #30 (1979)”, the exasperation of “Untitled #12 (1978),” or the potential fear of the “victims” of ““Untitled #86″ (1981)Untitled #86 (1981)” and ““Untitled #92″ (1981)Untitled #92 (1981)” all force the viewer to consume these codes of sadness and terror within the realm of the human. In “Disasters,” these codes are partially lodged within the human, but more importantly, they result from the photographs being within that of fantasy.

The “Disasters” photographs are neither portraits nor vignettes of the fantastical; rather, within the context of Sherman’s work, they are unbounded spheres of aesthetic and theoretical exploration. However, the next question is whether or not the “Disasters” are a shift or break in Sherman’s oeuvre. I believe they are the first point in her professional history in which she breaks from her own explicit codes, and because of this they act neither as Normal nor Other, but instead occupy a separate realm of significance. They signal a disruption rather than an extension. Although one may claim that the “Fairy Tales” do exactly this, I believe the “Disasters” actually accomplish this motion because of their eradication of centralized human focus. Whereas the main element of Cindy Sherman’s previous has been human as subject, the “Disasters” photographs turn this question of identity on its back and instead question what is real and what is imaginary.


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