-Joan Bowlen

Perhaps a reframing of my definition would be helpful in this discussion of Cindy and the portrait.  Beginning last time as I did with such a limiting definition restricted the universal sense of the portrait which I want to engender.  Though the media for which the term “portrait” is most often applied exhibit two-dimensionality, the concept of potraiture is by no means limited by dimensionality or even a realistic interpretation.

Many a successful bust or sculpture has presented a profoundly moving depiction of a sitter, from “Gertrude Stein” (1920)Jo Davidson’s sculptures presenting striking 3-D realism to the less specific representations of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series, artists use a variety of forms and media in order to establish depictions of humanity.

De Kooning’s series removes the act of identification of a person from the work and generates a weird, warping image of a human figure.  The gender of these figures develops through the dominating image of breasts and his titling of the works, beginning with “Woman I”.  Willem de Kooning, “Woman I”, 1952In Woman I we see a vision of a human figure which is solely de Kooning’s, which he has painstakingly carved out of layer upon applied layer of paint until he reached a point of completion known only to him.  Such a violent and personal abstraction of something so familiar (the human body) allows the viewer a point of contemplation for the way in which we see: what is it about a woman that makes our eyes establish her and her gender? What is the reason behind the discomfort that comes from viewing this 20th century Venus of Willendorf?

The reason is that de Kooning has presented us with a continually negated image of women; he has stripped away many of the nuances of the figure from which our eyes derive individuality, such as skin tone, skeletal structure, the rounding effect of muscle and fat.  Instead he has left us with this grotesque debasement of form that leaves little information with which to imprint the image on the eye.  The viewer will remember the sagging breasts, gritted teeth, and snake-like eyes and little else regarding the structure of this “woman” because de Kooning has provided so little of her for us to absorb.  It is through the absence of the complexities of women that de Kooning forces the viewer to contemplate them.

With the “Disaster” series, I feel that Cindy Sherman has constructed a similar kind of negation of the figure in order to engender it. The majority of these images present a scene in which the woman character is deeply hidden, if not replaced by dolls or masks.  In #168, the still-life is structured in such away that a sense that someone has been present, that some evil or tragedy has been enacted at this space and the ominous atmosphere still lingers.  The ghost of a form is projected beneath the blouse and skirt crumbled on the ground, making it seem as though a woman had collapsed in some seedy, strange alley and her body was slowly absorbed by the ground beneath.

“Untitled #168″ (1986)

Within the Disasters, Sherman does not eradicate the human presence, she changes the focus.  Rather than the incredibly frontal, wide-angle approach of the Rear-screen projections in which the face of the woman character was all that could be clearly articulated, the Disasters puts the background in the forefront and the woman character takes a back seat.  But she by no means disappears, her signified demands more attention to the signifiers in order to gain the sign of Cindy Sherman.  Sherman’s characters become defined by the objects that surround, bury, and mask them.

Sherman’s photographs have always been dependent on the set in which she places her characters.  Throughout her career her photographs obscure the line between the real and the imaginary (just as all great art must do, as it is all a presentation of something generated by the human mind), and here her work has exploded even further into the landscapes that lie only in mind of Sherman herself.  The photograph has pushed beyond any kind of familiar vision of women and their environments to revel in the hyperbolic state of the imaginary and the allegorical.


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