"Untitled #224", photograph, 48"x38", 1990.

"Untitled #96", color
photograph, 24"x18", 1981.

"Untitled #264", color
photograph, 50"x75", 1992

"Untitled Film Still #3", black and
white photograph, 8"x10", 1977.


by Nancy Kay Turner

(The Museum of Contemporary Art, Downtown) The early seventies was a vital time for women artists as the feminist movement encouraged them to develop personal art that dealt with their stories, their bodies, and their relationships. The culture was also in the grip of the "me" decade which spawned countless self-help groups urging people to focus on how they were marginalized by their race, gender or sexual preference.

Performance Art developed and flourished while promoting the concept of the artist as "auteur", storyteller, director, actor and stage designer, thus blurring the distinction between theater and the visual arts. Artists refined the notion of "appropriation", cannibalizing well-known art and including whole and unchanged art into their own work as an ironic statement about authenticity.

Emerging out of this tantalizing artistic primeval soup came Cindy Sherman, who combined elements from each of these social and art movements when she created a series of staged grade "B" movie stills, starring none other than herself. She was always alone, often in disguise, so that she became everyone and no one. Though this series of black and white pictures are untitled, the audience is seduced into filling in the story: Young Girl working in the Big City, Sultry Bored Suburban Housewife, Repressed Busty Librarian, Battered Wife, Restless Lowbrow Sexpot.

Sherman used clothes, props and furniture to indicate the low social class of the women she portrayed, while situating herself in bland, tacky or sterile rooms that quote from Diane Arbus' work. Her work contains echoes of real films, seeming to satirize scenes from famous movies. One example is Untitled Film Still #35 in which the artist is dressed like a poor, peasant woman, reminiscent of Sophia Loren in the wartime melodrama "The Women." Her work of this era is rich, evocative, funny and textured. It stimulates the viewer to ask all manner of questions related to "reel" versus "real" life; questions related to voyeurism, gender stereotypes, vicarious living through celebrities, and the role of art and artists in perpetuating or commenting on these issues.

In the eighties, Sherman's work paralleled the movies themselves and moved from black and white to technicolor, from the small screen to the large screen. Though the technique remained the same, the work shifted from nostalgia to confrontation as Sherman made more aggressive use of props such as dolls and medical prothesis to amplify her message.

The most amusing group of works are from the 1989-90 History Series, where Sherman spoofs famous masterpieces by impersonating the main subject such as Bacchus (though she makes fun of his androgyny by her obvious femaleness), the Odalisque of Ingres, and Judith with the Head of Holofernes. It is fun to observe these recastings, but they appear slight and gimmicky compared to her earlier more substantial series.

Sherman's work then descends into darkness, as she photographs disembodied plastic and rubber breasts, vaginas, legs, masks, which she reconfigures into a facsimile of a female person. Looking at these lurid images is like rubbernecking at some hideous car accident; you can't help looking, but you wish you hadn't. The subject of sexual fetishism, sadism, misogyny is better portrayed by Joel Peter Witkin, and even Robert Mapplethorpe, than Sherman.

Sherman is essentially a conceptual artist using photography rather than a photographer in love with the medium. Once she transitioned to color, this distinction informed her work in a negative way. You can't lie in living color.