Cindy Sherman: Renowned for her mastery of masquerade


Cindy Sherman is renowned for her mastery of masquerade — her own image is at the centre of an inspiring array of character studies created over decades. Sherman expands on contemporary society’s fascination with aspiration, narcissism and the cult of celebrity, and explores the resulting emotional fragility.

Focusing on large-scale photographs made since 2000, ‘Cindy Sherman’ exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) 2016, showcases the artist’s return as the central model in her artworks, for which she is also costume designer, make-up artist and photographer. The exhibition included two series made with high fashion houses Balenciaga and Chanel, and an entirely new body of work shown for the first time outside New York.

This is the second extract from the Cindy Sherman publication by Betsy Berne.

Related: Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman exhibition catalogue featuring Untitled #568 2016 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist

Cindy [Sherman] operates by intense instinct when she’s working, just as she operates by intense discipline in her non-working life. Instinct conjures magic and mistakes. Magic and mistakes are what make good art and that’s probably why Cindy genuinely relaxes when she’s making art — and her eye relaxes too. Another way to say it in modern lingo: she lives fully in the present; and what a relief it is to swat away the ‘shoulds’ that preoccupy the public Cindy, the conscientious Cindy, the disciplined Cindy, the overly generous Cindy.

It seems to me that there exists a crowd of bodies inside everyone’s body. Some people are hardly aware of these foreign bodies. Some are able to use them to their advantage. Cindy uses her foreign bodies from the inside, as well as foreign bodies from god-knows where, to make her pictures. They are not self-portraits: they are portraits of selves — and where those selves come from nobody knows, except Cindy, and I don’t think she could articulate it either. I think she creates her characters like some writers create fiction, unwittingly using what they know and then embellishing, imagining, fantasising, perhaps making three people into one or one person into three — and then an unexpected visual narrative emerges. If the narrative works, if she does surpass her high standards, no one is more surprised than Cindy. I’m always ‘seeing’ people that we know, especially in her more recent work, but she laughs it off and I believe her.

When it comes to the academic analysis of her work, Cindy laughs it off too. In an interview I did with her years ago,1 she said there was one time when she learned something, when Elizabeth Hess wrote about the series of works using fake body parts.2 Hess had said Cindy herself was gradually moving out of the work and she analysed the ‘deconstruction’ of it. ‘I’d never thought of that’, Cindy had said. ‘That’s the only time a light bulb went off. Because to me, I was just trying to see if I could make pictures I wasn’t in.’ About the props, now she says:

I guess I started to feel like I was cheating by using myself because it was easy — and then I thought, well, if it’s too easy, it must be bad. And I wanted to do something unexpected. I didn’t want to go back to doing what everybody loves.3

So, let’s skip the academic readings, and let’s skip the inevitable Cindy Sherman and feminism conversation. As she said to me in the same interview, ‘The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff’. And could we please skip the ‘Cindy Sherman’s work subverts the male gaze’ too? Let’s just say it wasn’t ever her conscious intention. As for classifying her works as self-portraits and discussing ‘Who is the real Cindy Sherman?’ . . . please.

The obvious thing to do is to call Cindy a chameleon in her work, but that’s too easy. The less obvious truth is that she absolutely is a chameleon when it comes to her life. Sometimes she enjoys it and learns from it, sometimes she regrets it. Cindy does love to dress up, but not to act as a chameleon. We’ve often agreed that half the fun of going out is planning the outfit. The more you learn about fashion, the more you understand that fashion is an art, just as fashion is valuable as armour. It’s no surprise that most women who love fashion are equally interested in the female-on-female gaze. Certainly, fashion has been an inspiration for Cindy at times, but she’s not dressing up when it comes to her work. She’s simply creating a narrative that’s up for grabs.

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Cindy Sherman / Untitled #414 2003 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © Cindy Sherman

This exhibition represents work from 2000 to the present. Is there a common denominator? Well, she returned to using herself as a model after a period of mostly using props. So why did she go back? The answer is pretty simple. She got sick of using the props; it was really hard and challenging, and it was liberating to go back to the figure — ‘it was nice not to struggle’. As for each series, they’re loosely named purposely and usually after the fact. The ‘head shots’ 2000–02 were based on Hollywood misfit wannabe actors and Hamptons wannabe socialites, according to Cindy, and were shot in two stages for shows on the west coast and east coast. I remember when she started the ‘clown’ series 2003–04, I asked her what got her going. It was after 9/11 and Cindy, like most New Yorkers, was shaky, dazed and unable to go directly back to ‘before’, whether consciously or not. She came upon a pair of pyjamas/ clown suit during her cleaning and organising ritual. She started researching pictures of clowns and realised that how she felt about clowns could encompass much of what she wanted to say about the ‘now’ of the ‘after’. The ‘Balenciaga’ 2007–08 shots commissioned for French Vogue served as a transition into digital photography. Cindy had been resisting using a digital camera until she tried a friend’s camera. It made her work easier and more spontaneous because she didn’t have to wait for the images to return from the lab. She was also able to use more elaborate backgrounds using digital techniques. It made her old way of working obsolete.

Where the ‘society portraits’, shown at Metro Pictures in the spring of 2008, came from in Cindy’s demented mind, I have no idea. All I know is when I walked into the gallery and saw the giant portraits, I gasped, in a cartoonish bubble-over-the-head sense, as in GASPED! It was astounding how Cindy had captured the exact moment of the economy’s crash — as it was happening, not after it happened — through these garish, yet not derisive, old money/new money/ modern-day Edith Wharton-type characters, while at the same time, she presaged the next chapter of the nascent Gilded Age. Purposely? Definitely not, because Cindy doesn’t get into politics with her work. Coincidence? I doubt it. Inexplicable? Yes.

The origins of the ‘murals’ came about through circumstance. Cindy was given a room in a group show at Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev,4 and she wanted to do an installation. She discovered a high-quality adhesive paper that could be used to make really large prints, hence, the murals. The characters? Cindy became fascinated by impromptu shrines found on the streets during a visit to Mexico. She began to experiment without using make-up, instead making subtle changes to the face digitally. Why? ‘It was fun’, she said. The murals continued with a commission from POP Magazine using clothing from Chanel. Cindy started playing around with backgrounds, using landscapes that were influenced by a trip to Iceland. Critics spoke about the idea of lonely figures in isolated environments. Cindy’s thoughts on the matter: ‘They do look pretty isolated’.

Cindy Sherman, United States b. 1954 / Untitled #512 2010–11 / Chromogenic colour print / 202.6 x 347.6cm / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © Cindy Sherman

It seems safe to say that no-one knows anything about Cindy’s process or, for that matter, what she’s trying to say — at least no-one I’m aware of. That’s classified information and will remain classified. One last thing. There’s talk in the art underworld that Cindy Sherman is ‘lucky’ because she’s been so ‘successful’ from early on. Let’s just say that it isn’t so easy to make work relying on instinct, especially as you get older and you can’t help but know too much. It’s hard as hell and enervating not to fall back on a formula or a bag of tricks. Cindy starts over every time.She’s in that studio alone until she takes flight and then she’s in there with her mirror reflecting her imaginary ‘friends’, and then they only speak when they emerge two-dimensional, in context and complete. As for what they’re saying, your guess is as good as mine. Cindy merely sets the stage.

Related: Part 1 | Cindy Sherman: In the eyes of the beholder

Betsy Berne is the author of the novel, Bad Timing. She also writes essays about culture, fashion, race and class and is currently working on a non-fiction book, Single White Mother.

1  Betsy Berne, ‘Studio: Cindy Sherman’, Tate: Arts and Culture, issue 5, May–June 2003, pp.36–41.
2  Elizabeth Hess, ‘Sherman’s inferno’, The Village Voice, 5 May 1992, pp.107–8.
3 Personal conversation with the artist.
4  ‘Sexuality and Transcendence’, Pinchuk Art Centre, Kiev, Ukraine, 24 April – 19 September 2010.

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