CINDY SHERMAN

 

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #205”

 

June 11 - October 2, 2016 at The Broad, Downtown

by Elenore Welles

 

 

The theatrical impulse to assume a variety of personas go at least as far back as the gods and goddesses who populated Greek, Norse and Hindu mythology. Those impulses continue to remain relevant, brought into the present era with actors and musicians such as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. However, starting in the 1970s, innovative photographer Cindy Sherman preceded them with provocative self-portraits of female clichés. Throughout her career as a conceptual artist, Sherman has not only posed questions of identity, but also how it is viewed through the lens of 20th and 21st centuries pop culture.

 

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #205,” 1989, chromogenic color print, 53 1/2 x 40 1/2”.

 

 

“Imitation of Life” is an in-depth survey that draws from a monumental number of works from within the Broad's personal collection, acquired over a career now numbering four decades. Included will be a portion never previously exhibited in Los Angeles. The film “Office Killer” (1997), a box office bomb directed and co-written by the artist, will also be on view. Sherman has over time created an astounding amount of charged images that have become publicly iconic and profound in their influence on innumerable artists. Given that she came of age with the proliferation of mass media imagery, the exhibit emphasizes Sherman’s engagement with 20th century popular film and celebrity.

 

Sherman first established her reputation with her “Untitled Film Stills” in the late 1970s, outlandish self-portraits, assuming personas drawn from contemporary cinema, media, and advertising. Acting as her own director, stager, photographer, make-up artist, and hairstylist, she photographed herself in a wide assortment of costumes and wigs. In an effort to preserve ambiguity, she deliberately eschewed titles. Photographed in black and white, Sherman places the various personas into ordinary environments: streets, yards, beaches and interiors. Her newest work revisits the original “Film Stills" in poses in which she casts herself as a series of aging former glamour stars. The toll of years is, in typical Sherman fashion, exposed, and the illusion of Hollywood icons ultimately draw our attention back to the artist.

 

Invited to assume the role of social critic, viewers are steered towards a recognition of how women’s stereotypes are steeped in contemporary culture. Reacting to the identity deceptions of mass media, she plays with entrenched perceptions so as to reveal the many ways those stereotypes become cultural assumptions. For instance, the persona of screen sirens of the 1950s and 60s is evoked by inhabiting a Marilyn Monroe-type actress in various stages of her career.

 

In 1980, Sherman switched from black and white to color, concentrating, for the most part, on facial features. In the series “Centerfolds/Horizontals,” inspired by fashion and pornographic magazines, she plays with the instability of self-identity. Inherent paradoxes are exposed, implicit in the deceptive societal concepts of women’s sexual desires and presumed need for domination. Compounding those concepts is their continual proliferation through mass media. In an effort to counteract those deceptions, she depicts herself in roles that range from seductress to rape victim. However, by projecting defiance in the face of vulnerability, she illustrates the power women have to erode exploitation. Larger than life in scale, and photographed close to the camera, the images are in your face.

 

Between 1989 and 1990, she produced the “History Portraits," large color prints restaging famous artist figures from the past. Particularly notable is her distortion of Raphael’s “La Fornarina” in “Untitled #205," where she skews masculine vision by exposing milk-swollen breasts.

By the 1990s Sherman began to take her physical self out of the pictures, taking a jab at pornography for her own ends. In these “Sex Pictures,” she uses prosthetic limbs and mannequins to pushing the boundaries between art and taste to create discomfort. With the use of dismembered and recombined mannequins, figures of women are structured into grotesque imageries. Depicted in sexualized positions, some are adorned with pubic hair, one is posed with a tampon in her vagina. Deliberately perverse and unsettling, the figures are compellingly critical statements on pornographic exploitation.

 

Throughout her career, Sherman reveals how broad concepts of social identity affect personal self-image. By exposing society’s underlying penchant for deception, she overtly tests our discomfort and in so doing reveals how identity often takes its cue from social dictates. Considering that the instability of identity continues to remain in the forefront of contemporary society, witness the last decade of LGBT history leading to present controversies surrounding transgender politics, her works and this exhibition maintain their relevance.