“To thine own selfie be true.” Of course, it’s a pun on Polonius’s famous lines in Hamlet — “to thine own self be true,” meaning to be true to yourself; do not engage in self-deception.
For the past forty years, American artist, Cindy Sherman, has gathered a global following by simply photographing herself, alone, in various guises in a sort of self-deceptive world – a world she does not know. Or maybe a world with which she is familiar by a keen sense of observation. Thus allowing her art to take its form in photography that is at once a voyeuristic dream and a calculating persona – not without some sense of humor. I’m talking about the world of her subjects: housewives, movie stars, fashion models, aged beauty queens, historic figures, clowns, and the like.
Curator Philipp Kaiser writes, “The imitation of cinema and the imitation of life blur beyond recognition.” This is why it is appropriate to bookend this exhibition with Sherman’s portrayals of classic movie stars from the golden age of Hollywood. After all, Los Angeles is famous for facilitating such pre and post depression images, and it would seem inauthentic for Sherman and her curator not to capitalize on these flapper fantasies. Therefore, it is important to note that Sherman began her work using such cinematic devices. Upon entering the exhibition, one is greeted by a 20-foot reproduction of Untitled #70 (1980) where Sherman uses the projected backdrop of a cityscape to mirror the technique used by film studios of the mid 20th century. Kaiser does an attractive job at providing a chronological memoir of Sherman’s work through a series of galleries – marvelously spaced. One must remember that Eli and Edythe Broad were avid collectors of Sherman’s work, and because of their large catalogue along with a few loans this exhibition basically illuminates the Broad’s own assemblage. This is more of an exhibition geared toward the Hollywood obsessed tourist and Sherman fan rather than a survey of Sherman oddities. That said, there is much more out there.
It is exciting to see the photographs that catapulted Sherman to art stardom: Untitled Film Stills (1978-80). This is the time capsule of Sherman’s work that peers into the lives of woman who lived near Hollywood culture of the 1950s and 60s. All of their dreams and desires wrapped up in a black and white screen. It was clear that these early years of her career, Sherman was a consummate witness to the joys of living in a youth-obsessed society and the pain that follows at the failed aspiration of sustaining youth. These are the selfies taken in vain and yet very difficult to observe. The themes on media and aging permeate throughout.
I was drawn to a series of black and white portraits of various women of all colors, sizes, and shapes waiting at a bus station in 1976 mostly, because I saw my Aunt Cheryl in one and Hillary Rodham in another. They could be anybody. Maybe that’s why none of her photos have a title. And so the imagination begins to take shape as Sherman provides the muse – herself.
Another impressive gallery holds those historical portraits inspired from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods made between 1988 and 1990. The artist is here poking fun of the styles and misogyny of the day, but she manifests fakeness in this series that also ties into movie madness for the viewer. Movies are just as fake. Soon we visit the macabre side of Sherman’s mind in the next gallery filled with grotesque sexual imagery using dismembered body parts to create a sexualized Frankenstein. It is a real departure from her popular historical works, and seems to be a moment of crisis for the artist at the helm of a culture where the media portrays sexual sin as unhealthy. Sherman still finds parallels to historical painters and while they use techniques with oil paint she finds sex toys, dumpster objects, and thrift store finds to her taste. Screening in the adjacent room is, Office Killer, a comedy-horror feature directed by Sherman in 1997 starring Carol Kane and Molly Ringwald among others which depicts a crazed copy editor who kills off most of her co-workers and plays with their dead bodies in her basement – yet another testament to Sherman’s twisted and wild meditation at this point in her career. The remaining galleries house some exquisite portraits known as the Hollywood/Hamptons series (2000-02) followed by the Society series (2008) depicting aging women of wealth; faces stretched by the constant strain of cosmetic surgery and the damaging rays of sunshine. Finally, we are left with some stunning portraits of aging movie stars (2010-16) in the autumn of their years – a metaphor for the artist’s career? At 62, Sherman could not be so ironic.
She has perfected the art of self-portraiture, but the viewer will rarely, if ever, see the actual artist without the artifice. The exception being works Untitled #99 – #116 (1982), known as the “robe photos” where Sherman is bare of any make up, but still she looms in a state of constant peril, and it feels like she is ready to strike at any given moment. Her later subjects are awkwardly posed with obvious hints of makeup and prosthetic adjustments. Sherman does not hide the fact that she is not only her only model but also her only critic. This use of transparency will guide the viewer into a trance of disbelief and discomfort. Sherman wants her audience to know that she is wearing a wig, because it is an imitation of life. Unprotected and fabricated. However, her eyes will always convey the emotional slit that we appreciate, especially when the subject could be someone we know, like our mother.
Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles until October 2nd.