Cindy Sherman’s Visual Impressions

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Photography provocateur Cindy Sherman creates in the spaces between what we see and what we believe. Her compelling imagery—often of herself portraying various feminine ideals—is fixed in its open-endedness. For more than four decades, Sherman’s portraits have challenged traditional views of women. The pictures are enigmatic and layered in complexity—she intends them to be both disarming and uncomfortable. Her explorations of identity are the subject of Cindy Sherman, a retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery tomorrow. Featuring more than 180 photographs—from past pieces to new work from the artist—the show discovers Sherman’s ever-evolving practice focused on the dynamic between facade and reality.

The exhibition begins with “Untitled Film Stills,” the breakout series that established Sherman in the contemporary art landscape. In this key series of portraits—later acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art—Sherman appears as a range of female characters from librarians and housewives to B-movie and film noir actresses. She conjures each persona intuitively, combining elements of costume, props, and even prosthetics. A true chameleon, Sherman assumes the roles of director, make-up artist, stylist, and model—fully immersing herself into each character and depiction. Her candid, black-and-white images, such as “Untitled Film Still #17,” 1978 and “Untitled Film Still #56,” 1980 offer clichéd representations—yet each photo hints at something deeper and slightly darker in the larger narrative.

As her work advanced into the next decade, additional series followed, including “Cover Girls,” “Rear Screen Projections,” “Centerfolds,” and “History Portraits,” showing traditional ideas of women infused with Sherman’s hallmark satirical style. In this era of her work, she began to experiment with more elaborate staging, larger formatting, and bold color palettes. Prosthetics and mannequins were introduced in her “Fairy Tales” and “Sex Pictures” series, centered on intentionally unappealing images that are distorted to exaggerate flaws. This theme is continued in her next series, “Clowns” and “Society Portraits,” with garish, hyper-real takes on beauty and aging.

Hollywood and pop cultural ideals bind Sherman’s collections of portraits. Her photos often touch on the idea of the gaze—whose vantage are we seeing and what it means to have that viewpoint. The characters are shown passively, but they also appear present and knowing, mistresses of their own gazes. Fittingly, all the works are numbered but untitled—while each image offers a comment, it is purposefully an undefined one. “The exhibition follows Sherman’s exploration of appearances, which invites us to attach meanings to people and situations on the basis of the way they seem,” curator Paul Moorhouse tells CR. “In a society that bombards us with images, what is true and what is pure appearance?”

Sherman’s interest in art began in her youth. Born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey in 1954, she began formal studies in visual arts at Buffalo State College. Initially focused on painting, she shifted to photography for its creative possibilities. During this time, Sherman met artist Robert Longo, who encouraged what would become her defining style of image-making—dressing up as various characters and fully transforming herself with clothing and props. Influenced by conceptual photographers Hannah Wilke and Adrian Piper, Sherman has always distinguished her images as characters, rather than elements of herself. She maintains that the works are performative, rather than political. “By inventing fictitious characters and photographing herself in imaginary situations, she inhabits a world of pure appearance,” says Moorhouse. “Probing the elusive connection between appearance and meaning, her work explores contemporary life—and with sharp observation exposes its deceptions.”

Both fashion—and anti-fashion—are significant in Sherman’s work. Her aesthetic incorporates a great deal of style, but often from an artificial or imperfect perspective. Within her bright, engaging photographs, images are intentionally awkward and distorted, challenging the ideas of what is perfect or even image-worthy. Sherman has collaborated with a number of designers to create pictorials that bear her signature approach, including her “Postcard” series for Comme des Garçons’ Fall/Winter 1994 collection. In 2010, she debuted her “Balenciaga” series of images, and in 2014, she also created a special edition handbag with Louis Vuitton. Later, Raf Simons cited her as an inspiration for his Fall/Winter 2016 Menswear collection, and Jun Takahashi printed Sherman images onto clothing for both Undercover’s Spring/Summer 2018 and Spring/Summer 2020 collections.

Despite—or perhaps because of—Sherman’s desire to push creative boundaries and challenge established conventions, the artist has found great professional success. In 1995, she received the esteemed MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2011 her photo “Untitled #96” was auctioned by Christie’s Auction House for .89 million, the highest price ever paid for a photograph at the time. While the meanings behind Sherman’s images are largely open to interpretation, the photos themselves and the characters within them resonate in the mind’s eye. Her body of work, shown in the current retrospective, takes shape between the ideals of appearance and authenticity with a gaze that fascinating, unsettling, and omnipresent.

Cindy Sherman is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London from June 27, 2019 to September 15, 2019.

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