Art can change the way you see the world, tinting your observations with someone else’s sensibility. You notice people who might otherwise escape your scrutiny and focus on the stray, sparkling detail. It’s a bit like falling under the influence of a drug that bends your perceptions and propels you towards revelation.
Cindy Sherman’s current bouquet of self-portraits at Metro Pictures – her first solo show in four years – had just that bewitching effect on me. I soon began to see Shermanesque women everywhere, overly made-up matrons who had slipped out of their frames to wander the streets of Chelsea. Sherman, who has always explored a range of female types, has lately turned her gaze to moneyed ladies of a certain age who look frighteningly, distressingly real. Or maybe it’s the other way around: reality starts to conform to her grotesque vision.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Sherman’s, though I liked the first black and white “Film Stills”. In those frames from nonexistent movies, she manipulated make-up, wigs, and thrift-shop throwaways to impersonate imaginary heroines. Masquerading as the sultry seductress, the frightened ingénue or the casualty of abuse, she exposed femininity as a series of clichés. These early works were low-budget but never crude, tapping into a vein of popular imagery only to treat it with gentle mockery.
Over the years, she has adapted the same techniques to an ever-broader range of female stereotypes. She posed as famous figures from art history, like the biblical Judith in gown and turban, gazing vacantly from beneath heavy lids as she dangles the severed head of Holofernes. Then she put together a cast of eccentrics who nevertheless conformed to recognisable types: a freckled bohemian in a woollen beret, an Upper East Side social butterfly and an earth-momma past her prime, with ultra bright teeth and a multiple strands of beads. Later, Sherman posed as a parade of clowns, her utterly generic face composed into variations on the theme of phoney joy. She had arrived at an especially saturnine view of womanhood. Her females had become preposterous creatures, lacquering over their emotional lives in thick layers of falsity.
Sherman’s new roster of ageing opera matrons, seasoned suburban empresses and wizened belles is at once crueller and more sympathetic. Now in her mid-50s, she has acquired a new repertoire of disguises and a new topic, the dispiriting effort to prolong youth. The sense of parody that permeated her earlier work has evolved into tragic realism. Once she enthusiastically exaggerated the process of self-construction, deploying costumes and cosmetics with cheery artificiality. Now she need only report on all those women who slap on powders and creams in the escalating war on sag. They submit to poisoned injections, expensive cutting, and a cascade of tinctures, herbs, potions, and pills. The photographer’s imagination can hardly compete with such a profusion of artistic techniques.
“When I first started I was kind of unsure that I really liked what I was doing because they looked so natural,” Sherman said recently, “not so cartoon-y or as caricaturish as some of my other stuff.”
She need not have worried. Sherman has an unerring sense of minutiae. Dagger-like earrings dangle from the lobes of a fading film star, a sly reminder that she was once a femme fatale. Meticulously placed wrinkles, judiciously applied chicken-neck, shoulders shrouded or bared and coquettishly cocked, a rose, a fan, a pliant terrier – each of these eloquent attributes conjures a flood of precise associations. Sherman competes with her subjects in obsessing over jewellery, hair, and skin, but she goes to such lengths because it’s her job, while her alter egos are wealthy and idle. Time flows unevenly for these women: they feel a shortage of remaining years and a glut of hours in the day. Pick your special horror – mine is the severe plantation chatelaine in a moss-hued gown and a triple strand of pearls, hovering before an allée of live oaks. Unhappiness is etched in the corners of her mouth, murderous determination in the gothic arch of her eyebrows.
The artifice of Sherman’s technique is frank. She sat for each self-portrait in front of a green screen, then digitally inserted the result in its setting. Sometimes, the illusion is persuasive – the blonde in the turquoise kaftan does really appear to be standing beneath a neo-medieval arcade – but most of the figures inhabit a flat projection of their own self-regard. The background is a set, before which each woman struts and frets. The grande dame who gives the camera a medicated glance over one naked shoulder does not seem spatially connected with the majestic staircase sweeping up to an unseen mansion. But then it’s hard to believe she has much connection to anything at all.
Sherman sees her creations in doleful terms. She imagines them shackled to bad marriages by golden chains. Her pictures frighten her. “I saw too much of myself in some of them,” she confessed to an interviewer. “To me, it’s a little scary when I see myself. And it’s especially scary when I see myself in these older women.”
Throughout her career, the photographer has disappeared into the completeness of her guises. After years of looking at her face, I doubt I would recognise her on the street. In this latest batch, she becomes doubly invisible, melting into women who have buried their spirits beneath encrustations of care. The self-portrait is usually a narcissist’s medium; for Sherman it has always been a form of self-effacement. Now it has become a kind of elegy too.
Text by Financial Times
Images by Metro Pictures, New York, www.metropicturesgallery.com