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Cindy Sherman: Retrospective

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 31

By Fred Camper

Celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz was once assigned to photograph Cindy Sherman. Sherman--who'd become famous by photographing herself in various elaborate disguises--greeted her at the door of her loft wearing plain black pants and a white blouse, which gave Leibovitz the idea of dressing nine Cindy Sherman look-alikes identically and photographing Sherman among them. But before she could make the photo, Leibovitz had to duplicate the outfit. She quickly discovered that Sherman's simple white blouse was a French designer item retailing at $450 and that her $900 black slacks came from Japan and couldn't even be purchased here. Duplicating this "modest" little outfit was going to cost over $10,000. Leibovitz wound up borrowing the blouses and using Gap pants for everyone but Sherman.

This story illustrates not only a New York art star's idea of an understated outfit but also the way Sherman took center stage in this little drama even when Leibovitz was aiming to make her a mere face in the crowd. For all the many and witty ways in which Sherman's photographs intentionally reflect on our culture, they also tell a different, darker tale, a drama of cultural narcissism and the empty, impoverished self that is its ultimate result.

The theme Sherman's advocates usually focus on is the way her work comments on media representations of women. Cocurator Amada Cruz of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which helped organize this traveling exhibition of 158 works, writes in her catalog essay that Sherman's photos are "disparate views of Everywoman as she has appeared in the media." And Rosalind Krauss in her book Cindy Sherman argues that the photographer's first major series, Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), reveals the signifiers by which movies create meaning: Sherman enables us to "look under the hood" and see how women's personas have been created. These "stills" were not copied from particular films, however, but were based on Sherman's memories of old films seen on TV and images in such magazines as Life and Seventeen. They all feature Sherman alone, often in environments that feel vaguely threatening--on a lonely stairwell or highway, seemingly trapped on a street framed by a railing, looking vulnerable on a bed. In many of the shots she seems to be reacting to another person: glaring angrily as she gathers groceries from a torn bag on the floor, she may be confronting the man who just hit her. In virtually all the shots, her pose combines with the camera angle to acknowledge the viewer's presence.

But despite Sherman's panoply of angles and roles, more often than not she plays a victim; always we're meant to look at her. Two years before Sherman began this series Laura Mulvey's now-famous essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" appeared: not without justification, she accused classic Hollywood filmmakers of reducing women to passive objects of male desire, objects of "the male gaze." But whereas Mulvey called for "a new language of desire," films made from a feminist point of view, Sherman simply recapitulates the role of woman as victim, though admittedly in a self-conscious and sometimes thought-provoking form.

But to me, the sympathy that Sherman creates with women who are crying or otherwise under stress is far more simpleminded than the feelings created about women in the greatest of Hollywood films. None of Sherman's photos evokes emotions as complex and divided as one's enthralled vision of Madeline (Kim Novak) in Hitch-cock's 1958 Vertigo. George Cukor's 1939 The Women, which includes no men but whose script is hardly feminist, establishes a complex relationship between the narrative and the characters, whose carefully blocked positions in each shot create a shifting drama of power and victimhood. And Howard Hawks's 1938 Bringing Up Baby, which places Susan (Katharine Hepburn) at the center of many compositions, includes no images like Sherman's. Susan is wealthy, complex, and strong--a force of nature who literally sweeps the weaker David (Cary Grant) off his feet. Sherman lying on a bed in what looks like a cheap hotel room in #11 is reminiscent of film noir--but in perhaps the greatest noir, Robert Aldrich's 1955 Kiss Me Deadly, any woman is just as likely to be sitting up, pointing a gun at Mike Hammer.

Perhaps the problem is that Sherman favors third-rate 70s imitations of classic Hollywood films; one of her three all-time favorites is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a visually sterile and senselessly brutal movie. Perhaps her work critiques only the worst of mainstream media, the stupidest and most derivative grade-Z horror films and banal magazine photos, which see women only in the most puerile way.

Consider the connections of some Sherman "stills" to the famous shower murder of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), from which most splatter films devolved. In #81 we look through an open doorway at Sherman standing before a mirror in her slip; in #39 we see a partly nude Sherman through another open door, standing before a sink with a toilet behind her. In Psycho, however, just before Norman murders Marion, we spy on her from his point of view, through a small hole in the wall with jagged, vaginalike edges that foregrounds the sexual nature of the spying; we also get an extreme close-up of Norman's eye. Hitchcock makes us more profoundly aware of our voyeurism than Sherman, forcing us to both participate in and stand back from it, explicitly connecting it with the enormity to come.

Sherman's art may have some utility as a critique of the worst mass-media stereotypes, but great films or magazine images are far more complex than their imitations, including Sherman's. Besides, Sherman says she grew up seeing both classic and trashy films on TV, which utterly destroys the tonal and compositional complexity of film images. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that none of the photos looks much like an actual still, at least not from a classic Hollywood film. Amateurish in lighting and composition, they often include multiple shadows, and the absence of supplemental lighting or reflectors in the outdoor shots often makes Sherman's face blend in with the background--she would have been highlighted, backlit, or both in a commercial film. No cinematographer worth his salt would give us a composition as awkward as #20, with huge bushes casting pointless shadows over Sherman, neither framing nor entrapping her. True, the "film stills" used in advertising were often separately posed shots rather than actual frame enlargements, but if anything they were even more carefully composed and lit than the actual film.

After the film stills Sherman began making color images. These untitled photos are also grouped into series--"Fashion," "Sex Pictures"--but with more complex lighting and color schemes that are also more complexly seductive. Once again Sherman portrays seemingly weak women about to be victimized. Worse, her photographs appear to connect weakness to femininity. In #96 we see her lying on the floor from above, the shades of red and brown in her face, checkered skirt, and hair making her blend in with the tiled floor like an object of decor; she holds a crumpled piece of paper over her crotch, a pathetically inadequate phallic substitute. In #122 a long blond wig covers her face almost completely, obscuring her vision. In #97 and #98 she covers herself with a red bathrobe, like a centerfold between shots, but though visually the prop gives the composition strength, her uncertain, sad look expresses passivity and fear. Sherman appears powerful only when dressed and posed to look like a boy, as she is in #109 and #112.

These images, like the film stills, encourage us to imagine narratives. In #92 the most obvious narrative suggested by her crouch on a floor looking up is that she's just been knocked down. In the less brutal #90, Sherman reclines on a couch gazing at the phone beside her, suggesting she's anxiously awaiting a call from her lover. Sherman's women always seem dependent; the very nature of their poses suggests they need our gaze to complete them.

But I object less to Sherman's portrayals of women as victims than to her depictions' lack of subtlety. She may intend to critique the idea of women as victims, as her defenders insist. But the viewer's natural tendency is to identify with the point of view of the camera--and much in Sherman's compositions encourages this tendency. Her colors are lushly compelling, her lighting and poses are highly theatrical, and the photos' large size invites fantasies of entry. We're aware of the artifice, but her angles and lighting create a spectacle that beckons as well as troubles us.

The real problem, however, is not political but aesthetic: none of Sherman's pictures sustains interest for more than a few seconds. This is a show to walk through quickly; seeing everything at a glance, the viewer may well find the exhibit pleasurable and provocative. But if you love the compositional possibilities of photography, which has a long and rich history, there will be little for you here. Art critic Christopher Knight wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Sherman has helped earn photography a place in the art world equal to other media, but in my mind her method is paradigmatically postmodern and paradigmatically pathetic. She explores the unique qualities of photography hardly at all, instead approaching it as a conceptual or performance medium.

In a 1923 talk called "The Art Motive in Photography," one of the most moving attempts ever to define the unique qualities of a medium, Paul Strand argued that photographers should try to make photographs true to the medium rather than imitate the look of painting. Who could have guessed that now we would come full circle, that Strand's characteristically modernist argument would break on the postmodern shoals of Cindy Sherman, who makes photographs that imitate performance art, theater, advertising, movies--and in one series, old master paintings?

In his lecture, Strand advised photographers to learn their craft and strive for compositions akin to "a living organism," with each part of the photograph relating to the whole. "A strip of grass...must be felt as the living differentiated thing it is....It must take its proper but no less important place as a shape and a texture, in relationship to the mountain, tree or whatnot." Strand argued for an aesthetic later exemplified in his own compositions and those of Edward Weston, Walker Evans, and many others, compositions whose tonal values and lines and shapes have some of the complexity of music, that can only be viewed actively over time. Such work sustains contemplation and thought; I don't think any appreciative viewer would describe his looking at them as a "gaze." By contrast Sherman's "strips of grass" are mere props, a supporting cast meant to highlight her "concept"--and her self.

Sherman said in a recent interview that she flunked her first photo course, unable to handle small matters like exposing and developing her film. She passed with a different instructor who was "less concerned with getting a perfect print. She showed us examples of a lot of Conceptual art and stressed the importance of getting an interesting idea. That seemed to free me." But has her freedom helped us? Her observations on media imagery have taken more sophisticated forms in many essays; the conceptual aspects of her art never seem to mesh perfectly into an idea, never produce the spark that brings to life the industrial-structure photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher or the serial documentations of Ed Ruscha. Instead Sherman's dead compositions serve mainly to connect us with the artist herself.

And why always her? She painted self-portraits in college but denies that they have any particular significance: they were simply meant, she says, "to get an idea of how a face is put together....It was just easier to use my own." She's tried photographing other people but says that never seems to "work." She adds, "I don't like to impose on people." So, a bit tired of herself, in the last decade she's made many "self-portraits" using medical mannequins, plastic body parts, and masks so complete one can't tell who's behind them. An example is #184, in which a doll-like figure lies in a cluttered wasteland of computer parts and other junk.

Many observers have found the desolation of these later works troubling. Yet psychoanalytic studies of narcissism suggest that desolation is its inevitable result. Narcissism in psychoanalytic terms is quite different from the simple self-love the word denotes in popular usage. Alice Miller in her book Prisoners of Childhood posits that some parents, rather than responding to the authentic needs of the child, force him from infancy into a predetermined role. Knowing only that he must perform to please an all-powerful other, the child never develops an independent sense of who he is. Moreover, the internalized parent can never be satisfied; no "role" is ever good enough, and the parent's narcissism leads the child to vacillate between feelings of grandiosity and utter worthlessness, even to the "dead self" one writer describes. Sherman's exquisite, corpselike pastiches of body parts in the "Sex Pictures" and impenetrable masks in others essentially reproduce these dead selves, the result of performance replacing life. Indeed, the only authentic and truly affecting moments in Sherman's work come when we see the hint of a red mouth or weirdly glimmering eye behind a mask--suggestions of human life not yet snuffed out.

The other parenting extreme--giving in to all a child's demands--can also lead to narcissistic personality disorders in the adult. In both cases the self is never allowed to test itself in realistic relationships with others and acquires an untoward sense of its own importance. Some narcissists respond with introversion, others by constantly "performing." Sherman does both, often claiming that she's "shy" and isolating herself in her photos. These are less photographic art than mere documentation of her shifting masquerades, haunted by the inner emptiness that comes from never finding a home for the soul. Amelia Jones in her catalog essay, which is written in the language of postmodernism and never refers to narcissism, says that in #96 "The subject...is never complete within itself but is always contingent on others." Such blind celebrations of Sherman's work suggest that the absent self is a good thing. I don't think so. Indeed, postmodernists' love of appropriated imagery can be seen as the failure to assert an original presence. The sense of empty posturing in the worst pomo art, often produced by artists of similar age, also suggests that television--demanding attention, manipulating viewer emotions--might be seen as the ever-present narcissistic parent.

I don't know Sherman; none of this is meant to reflect on her as a person. Many people lead healthy lives despite a residue of unresolved, unhealthy narcissism. I also don't know anything about Sherman's childhood except that, when she was growing up in suburban Long Island, her parents instilled in her a fear of New York City as a dangerous place. This fear informs many of her urban photos. She has also declared that her greatest fear is of "a horrible, horrible death," a fear she may be attempting to master in her "dismemberment" photos by enacting it on a stage she can control. But in another sense her work is completely out of control. The only coherent part of each image is its central concept. And because her art truly is surface, it's riddled with falsehood: she seems to think that a wig and some make-up will allow her to comment authoritatively on Caravaggio or Rembrandt, whose styles she superficially refers to in her "History" series.

Fifteen years ago, on a visit to a beginning filmmaking class at the University of Oklahoma, I saw a narcissistic work far more courageous and revealing than anything Sherman has done. One of the students showed a film in which he was the sole actor: in it he sat down on a couch and turned on a TV. There we saw a nude image of him flexing his ass for the viewer, as if inviting anal penetration. Already he'd taken one risk Sherman never has: showing his own body completely nude, with all the potential for rejection that that exposure creates. When questioned, the student insisted--just as Sherman has--that he used himself as a subject only because it was easier; indeed, it might have been hard to get another person to perform that role for the camera. To their credit, his fellow students didn't believe this for a minute. And to his credit, he made explicit in the film what he denied in the class: that he was depicting his perverse desire to make love to himself. That may not be Sherman's desire, but she never seems to understand her photos' real reasons for being, never approaches that student's degree of authenticity and self-knowledge.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Untitled Film Still #84".

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