Location | New York: Cindy Sherman's Contemporary Grotesque at MoMA

My hiatus went longer than expected as I completed the spring term marking and then prepared and taught the first part of the Paris Field School in a condensed format over the past three weeks. As a result, some of the posts for my recent New York trip were sidelined. I am happy to be presenting them here over the next few days after which time I will be completing a blog overhaul and re-design (it is long overdue!) and introducing a new face to Avant-Guardian Musings just in time for the Paris and Documenta trip. Stay tuned as I will be posting a daily blog (students and my own reflections and pictures) from the Field School on my website. If you have not been to Paris and/or Documenta and want a cheaper way to see it, this will provide one way to experience it vicariously through the blog! And for those of you heading to NYC this summer, do not miss Cindy Sherman on until mid-June at MoMA.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #474 (2008)
courtesy of MoMA via artblogbybob
I had incredibly high hopes for the Cindy Sherman exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It was on the top of my gallery visits agenda heading to New York in April and I was hoping to see something there that would cut through so much of the hype and misunderstood celebrity that has accumulated around Sherman in the past several years. From the recent record sale of one of her iconic photographic film stills, to her controversial collaboration with MAC Cosmetics (stories I have blogged about here and here), Sherman has come to the attention of a very broad public and not always for the best of reasons. But from my perspective, living and working in Vancouver-- a city with such a photo-based interest in contemporary art-- I was also coming with some emotional investment as Sherman’s practice has informed and provided context for innumerable conversations and teaching moments in my own career.

Entrance to Sherman retrospective at MoMA (author's photograph)
Walking into MoMA’s top floor gallery, I could not help comparing it on sight to the Jeff Wall retrospective that had been installed in the same space only a few years ago. At that time, I had wondered aloud why Sherman had not yet received the same full retrospective treatment for her photo works. No doubt her early film stills series and other early projects did not necessarily possess the same visual appeal as Wall’s back lit photographs on the gallery walls, but the omnipresence of Sherman’s face in virtually every image was in itself something quite extraordinary, leaving visitors constantly aware of her own investments in the pictures, and also the hard-to-ignore reality that the images were also tracking the physical changes and signs of aging in Sherman’s own body right before their eyes. It is a decisive quality of Sherman’s pictures to bring awareness to the dynamic tensions in how women are represented by others and then re-presented through their own performative interpellation of society’s many “roles” for modern women. 

Interior shot of Society Portraits (on blue walls)
Sherman’s most recent series of photographic Society Portraits (2008), colossal images that feature Sherman dressed and performing a cross-section of New York’s Upper East Side women “of a certain age,” mirror back to us even more dramatically the disconnect between how people truly look and how they wish to appear. Lacking the photo shop and good lighting that is usually reserved for portraiture of this type, Sherman’s photos are intentionally grotesque and reveal tell-tale signs of extensive plastic surgery, botched make-up jobs, and ill-fated attempts at body contouring to hide signs of aging.  In this sense, Sherman invites us to look very closely, perversely close, and examine the subjects’ every pore for evidence of just how disconnected these images are from what is likely intended. In the process, the audience is made uncomfortably aware of their own image management, especially in today’s social media fuelled world. It is also a world of pictures all too reminiscent of the broader spectacle played out on the high definition landscape of “reality” television, 24/7 celebrity news, and era of constant and unremitting “self-improvement.”  As I walked out of the gallery, I was left with a strong sense of the unresolved nature of these images—what were these monstrous pictures saying to us about our society and ourselves? How do these pictures connect to Sherman's own artist celebrity and the larger gaps and interests between women of the 1970’s feminist era and those of the current “Real Housewives” period?   

I think Hal Foster sums it up best in his exhibition review of Sherman’s show published in the London Review of Books (worth reading in full here). He pinpoints and describes that very real sense of time passing, the terms of contemporary art production shifting, and Sherman’s ability to reveal something quite anxiety-inducing to both the lay public and public intellectuals alike—something we would rather hide from than confront as unflinchingly as Sherman has in her many “self-portraits”:

“It is not just that, as the series roll by, we glimpse the artist age behind all the make-up; it is that the arc of her subjects from ingénue to dame is not unlike that of her own life – from the young artist new to the city to a cultural figure in her own right. The images also trace this trajectory in their production, from small black and white faux film stills (galleries were modest then too) to large colour pictures produced digitally on the scale of paintings (Sherman has spoken of her wish to compete with the grand installations of some of her male colleagues). In this social story there is also a political allegory: those of us who started out as the postmodernist generation, eager to build on the advances of the 1960s and 1970s in art, theory and other domains, had that future hijacked by a reactionary turn in almost all things. That painful narrative can also be read here.”

MoMA has produced the following introductory video to Sherman which can be found along with others on their website