January 27, 2009 | Tagged absence, aging, Alfred Stieglitz, art history, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Fountainebleau, future, Jeff Wall, Metro Pictures, painting, Pictorialism, presence, undergraduate | 1 Comment
So, we’re finally entering into the last few months before the thesis is due. We’re shooting to have a rough draft by March 7 (the beginning of spring break). That should give a good amount of time for revision, and then hopefully some time to reflect and look back on what we’ve theorized and proposed. If you’re at all interested in reading any drafts, we’d love any questions, concerns or comments you may have! You can email either of us directly to find out more about how we could work that out.
Another quick announcement– Joan and I will be presenting at the W&M Honors Theses Colloquium sometime in the latter half of February. More specifics about the dates for that will come later.
For now, I’m going to shift a little from Sherrie Levine in offering a review of Cindy Sherman’s latest show of new work in New York City from last fall. Joan and I had the pleasure of attending the opening, where we actually got to meet Cindy Sherman (and David Byrne too!) and see all of the works in person. I am not sure whether or not work from this show will make it into the thesis or not, but even so I thought it was best to finally put down my reflections in person.
Metro Pictures Gallery
November 15 – December 23, 2008
One of the most arresting things about studying art history in college is that the majority of time is spent on work from the past thousand years, spanning from the manuscripts and soaring cathedrals of Medieval Europe to the neo-Byzantine glory of Greece and Eastern Europe, from the bursting forth of rhetoric, painting, architecture and sculpture in the Italian Renaissance to seventeenth century Dutch painting, and lastly rounding into Impressionism and the twentieth century and its major tenet of Modernism. Because of this, most of the works seen have been in transit for years, changing hands from artist to dealer to collector, and then back through the avenues of the art market, usually leading to the museum. Very rarely does one ever touch on work of the living artist, and when the subject is raised the discussion is often obscured with anecdotes of popular culture, politics of the art world, and the personal sensibilities of the artist. Thus, the art history student is usually left to one of two radically different conclusions: first, that of the artist-cum-celebrity, and secondly that the work exists without a concrete human author; rather, the work rests in an ambiguous void, where the idea of the human hand is obscured by the perceived importance of the work. These conclusions are not necessarily the reaction of the consumer of art, but rather the effect of a course of study in the undergraduate Art History track, where interface is relegated to the omnipresent slide and/or digital image.
Thus, I could have never been prepared for the trip to New York City in November to see Metro Pictures Gallery’s exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s latest work from 2008. No matter how many Untitled Film Stills, History Portraits or Centerfolds I studied, I could only fantasize about the content of the show. From the moment I heard about the exhibition, my mind raced with questions of how the works would look, how they would be arranged, and whether they would be continuations of the Clowns series of 2004, the society pictures of the 2000s, or the off-kilter fashion photographs for French Vogue, August 2007. My attempts at calling the gallery for more information failed, as I was told that they were new work but nothing else could be released about them. Therefore, I was left to my imagination, which was running wild with questions, proposed scenarios, and thoughts of what Sherman’s muse was and is in 2008. The anticipation was great, but given the gravity of the project in which I was (and still currently am) entrenched, the results were of deep importance to me– moreso than that of any other artist save Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger. It was like seeing a best friend again after years of separation– I did not know what to expect and thus I was made nervous, but I could not help but wish it came sooner day after day.
A couple of weeks before the show I came across an advertisement for the exhibition in the November issue of Artforum. I was absentmindedly flipping through the first fifty pages of advertisements, noting the occasional show that caught my attention when all of a sudden one of the images from the show, blown up to fit the entire page, burst forward and grabbed my attention. I was stunned– momentarily frozen in a stasis of sheer wonder and rhapsody. Here it was– the first Cindy Sherman photograph of a new work I had ever seen before it was printed elsewhere for me to find. The deep and verdant greens surrounding the subject swirled in my mind as I both was enthralled by and found myself cowering from the harshness and severity of the subject’s gaze. I felt like I had stumbled upon something I should not have seen– a chastisement for my unabashed curiosity and awe. Still, I could not keep my eyes from fixing upon the elements of the photograph– the ways in which the cloth was draped and tied, how the trees intertwined and blocked any major view of the sky, and how the pearls and earrings felt completely in harmony with the character.
As is the case with most, if not all of Cindy Sherman’s pictures of character types, a tension of sorts erupted quickly after first seeing the photograph. There were elements of the layout and portrayal of the character that did not fit into the logic of normalcy. First, the woman appears to be floating in the picture as is caused by the fade between her and the natural setting of the background, thus creating a ghost-like effect in which portraiture is mixed with landscape inseparably. The lushness of the forest recalls the Fontainebleau school of photography mixed with the codes of Western landscape painting, thereby mixing elements of seemingly opposing media into a composition than in and of itself does exactly the same thing– verge towards a potential middle ground between painting and photography without being of a Pictorialist sensibility or a Jeff Wall-like tableau moment. (I do not want to go into this right at this moment, but perhaps this might be a good point to try and apply a Sherrie Levineian approach to artistic conventions via the rhetoric of Abigail Solomon-Godeau, despite its potential failures as a contemporary theory of photographic meaning) So, then, is Cindy Sherman trying to make her photographs more like paintings, or is she saying that with the advent of digital photography we can manipulate the image finally to achieve the goal Stieglitz wanted when the gum bichromate print was so in vogue of introducing the artist’s hand into the print?
Another point of tension, which despite its continual presence in Sherman’s oeuvre was still arresting in the first moments of viewing the photograph, is located in the makeup of the subject. The face is troublesome because for the first time it feels that something is trying to be covered up in the photograph– something hidden that threatens to disrupt the authenticity of the experience of the viewer. The blush seems a little too heavy, the eyebrows too severely arched, the hair much too coiffed and perfectly brushed. However, the result is not a doll-like resemblance; rather, the character just appears to be slightly off– perhaps off in the exactness of the stereotype we have in mind, or perhaps off in the perceived emotional imbalance of the subject. But is not that exactly the sort of tension that Sherman has tried to pull off since the late 1970s? Why should this be any different now?
After seeing the show in New York, it seems to me that all of these same questions are equally viable, despite their thirty-year-long lifespan. Something that really bothered me about the experience of seeing all of the photographs in this new line of work was how drawn I had become to suspending the knowledge that Cindy Sherman was the subject of these photographs in favor of a liminal space where I could entertain the possibility that these characters were more than merely motivations of the artist to capture stereotypes and characterizations of our contemporary society. I wanted to reject that Cindy existed on any level in the photograph, and instead I wanted to adopt the presence of mind to allow for the feasibility of these photographs to be accurate representations of something more than a person, more than a stereotype, more than a reduce-able social demarcation.
However, I must also admit to the opposing force inside me that still relished the omnipresence of Cindy Sherman. I at one moment was forcing myself to violate this by suspending my understanding to allow for a reading of the character beyond the Cindy-ness of the photograph, while then subsequently collapsing that attempt and breathing in the naturalness that the viewing process emitted. I was at some major level gaining satisfaction from knowing that Cindy Sherman– THE Cindy Sherman– was behind all of these photographs.
Perhaps that is exactly what the intention of Cindy Sherman really is, after you sort through what I believe to be the soft reading of the show that reduced Sherman’s explorations to mere comments on the upper echelon of art collectors and society women. Maybe the oscillation between fetishized knowledge of Cindy Sherman as artist/celebrity and the disbelief of any hand of Cindy in the photographs is the strength of the work and what makes them continually viable thirty years later. It seems to me that the Clowns series of 2004 failed to be embraced so wholeheartedly because the Cindy Sherman we, as an art consuming world, know and love seemed so far removed from the photographs– maybe the clowns actually were other people dressed up and posing for the camera rather than all being Cindy Sherman. But then, is this enough? Is it enough for Cindy Sherman to continually, relentlessly, unceasingly ask you: where am I?
This new collection of photographs add a tremendous amount to Sherman’s work of the past decade. Starting with Surrealist approaches to doll parts and sexually infused scenes of mangled body parts and moving through searing indictments of East Coast/West Coast stereotypical women, Clowns, and European inspired fashion outcasts, the 2008 photographs fit in well with the tenor of Sherman’s work while still adding some more meat to the bones of her oeuvre. While it seems that she has touched on the effects of aging in earlier photographs, nowhere is it so clear and present as in these pictures. Command of makeup techniques, fashion decisions and backdrops all open up the discussion of aging of women in society– especially “high” society. But what differs from being just another topic to discuss is that it seems to me that aging is what allows for these photographs to function as both agonizing and pitiful. They allow the viewer to elicit sympathy for the character, even if they cannot empathize with their condition or stature. There seems to be an overwhelming sadness in these characters– a sadness that is cast throughout the collection, despite their sometimes cheery faces or opulent surroundings. It’s not merely the malaise of the rich; rather, there is something deeper– more profound– at work here, which is why I feel these photographs are less about aging than they are the utter gloom of inevitability– of the future. They are the flipside to a Diane Arbus photograph, and to me they are just as unsettling and rattling as Arbus’ subjects.
“Once I dreamed I was on a gorgeous ocean liner. All pale, gilded, encrusted with rococo – like a wedding cake. There was smoke in the air and people were drinking and gambling. I knew the ship was on fire and we were sinking slowly; they knew it, too, but they were very gay and dancing and singing and a little delirious. There was no hope. I was terribly elated. I could photograph anything I wanted.”
- Diane Arbus