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Cindy Sherman (1954 - )

Lifespan: 1954 -

Related: American art - contemporary art

Cindy Sherman: Film Stills (2003) - Cindy Sherman, Peter Galassi
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Office Killer (1997) - Cindy Sherman
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Cindy Sherman (born January 19, 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey) is an American photographic artist. She attended State University College at Buffalo, N.Y., majored in art, but changed her major to photography, and received a bachelor's degree in 1976. The following year she moved to New York City.

In December 1995, “The Museum of Modern Art” acquired all sixty-nine black-and-white photographs in Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills series. This insured that this landmark body of work was preserved in its entirety in a single public collection. The series has been exhibited as a whole only once before.

She is most known for her series Untitled Film Stills in which she takes on the roles of different female stereotypes.

Sherman began making these pictures in 1977, when she was twenty-three. The first six were an experiment: fan-magazine glimpses into the life (or roles) of an imaginary blonde actress, played by Sherman herself. The photographs look like movie stills—or perhaps like publicity pix—purporting to catch the blond bombshell in unguarded moments at home.

Other artists had drawn upon popular culture, but Sherman's strategy was new. For her the “pop-culture” image was not a subject (as it had been for “Walker Evans”) or raw material (as it had been for “Andy Warhol”) but a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made. Her film stills look and function just like the real ones.

Over the short breadth of her career, her work has grown markedly more aggressive in tone, and more overt in its message. Sherman has taken on a larger task: breaking down reality to see if anything remains: to see if there is such a thing as a core identity, or if there is nothing but myth, or what we choose to dress ourselves up to be.

During the 1980s Sherman began to use colour film, to exhibit very large prints, and to concentrate more on lighting and facial expression. Using prosthetic appendages and liberal amounts of makeup, Sherman moved into the realm of the grotesque and the sinister with photographs that featured mutilated bodies and reflected such concerns as eating disorders, insanity, and death. Her work became less ambiguous, focusing perhaps more on the results of society's acceptance of stereotyped roles for women than upon the roles themselves. During the 1990s Sherman returned to ironic commentary upon clichéd female identities, introducing mannequins to some of her photographs. In 1997 she directed the dark comedy film "Office Killer" in which a secretary exacts her revenge for corporate downsizing. She followed this in 1999 with an exhibition of disturbing images of savaged dolls and doll parts that extended her interest in juxtaposing violence and artificiality.

In 1999 she was named one of the Top 10 Living Artists by “ARTnews magazine”. Her work has been shown in more than 75 solo exhibitions and as part of over 150 group exhibitions. Sixty-four museums collect her prints. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cindy_Sherman [Apr 2005]


Imagine, today, a male artist exhibiting photographs of a naked, lifelike female doll that he has tied up, dismembered, and twisted into erotically disturbing poses. His captive princess, her flesh swollen and misshapen, appears barely alive or recently dead. The artist takes exquisite pains -- and pleasure -- with her body, as if he were a sexual predator who must document his handiwork before it's lost to posterity. He carefully arranges and rearranges the pieces of her broken form, sometimes prettily hand-tinting the photographic remains. Might not a little rouge illuminate the deathly pale aspect of a twisted thigh or enrich the revelatory spread of leg? A contemporary artist like Cindy Sherman could get away with this kind of work, because when made by a woman, such imagery is read as an ironic commentary upon patriarchal society. But a male artist? He would be ostracized by the puritans on both the right and the left -- by the feminists patrolling the sexual borders of contemporary life and by the politicos peddling decency. --Mark Stevens for newyorkmetro.com

Feminists have been both fascinated and appalled by the work of Cindy Sherman

Feminists have been both fascinated and appalled by the work of Cindy Sherman. At best, it provides a compendium of the complex personae which women have both performed and been called on to perform. The female form has been fetishized throughout the history of art and Sherman's work is thought to have been unsuccessful at providing a consistent critique of this fetishization. More often than not, Sherman appears to have been seduced herself by the spectacles she produces.

One of the clearest and most concise elaborations of the feminist perspective on Sherman's work has been from Laura Mulvey in her essay "A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman." Mulvey was one of the first theorists in the visual arts to use the theories of Freud as a tool to understand male artists' representations of women. Her essay "Fears, Fantasies and the Male Unconscious or 'You Don't Know What's Happening, Do You Mr. Jones?'" first appeared in 1973 in the British feminist magazine Spare Rib. In it, Mulvey critiqued the work of British pop artist Allen Jones who had produced a series of sculptures in 1970 called Women as Furniture in which "life-size effigies of women, slave-like and sexually provocative, double as hat-stands, tables and chairs."  Some of these may be familiar as they were featured in a scene in Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange. Mulvey pointed out that Jones was simply repeating a cultural trope or set of conventions which could be seen in many forms of popular culture and mass media: fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper's and Bazaar, news magazines such as Life, advertisements of all sorts, TV shows, and films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Barbarella. Mulvey's point was that Jones, like many male auteurs in the visual arts was speaking in the language of fetishism. As Mulvey put it:

"The fetishist image of women has three aspects, all of which come across clearly in his (Jones's) books and art objects.

First: woman plus phallic substitute.
Second: woman minus phallus, punished and humiliated, often by woman plus phallus.
Third: woman as phallus. Women are displayed for men as figures in an amazing masquerade, which expresses a strange male underworld of fear and desire."

In Freudian terms, fetishism arises as a result of the castration complex, in which the child recognizes for the first time that his mother does not have a penis and this recognition creates fear
in the child that, if his mother has "lost" hers, he is in danger of losing his. "Fetishism ... involves displacing the sight of woman's imaginary castration onto a variety of reassuring but often surprising objects - shoes, corsets, rubber gloves, belts, knickers and so on - which serve as signs for the lost penis but have no direct connection with it." In this male drama, women are placed in the masquerade of a number of roles, from virgin to whore, which psychically construct them as the "other" of male fantasy. In the case of Sherman, Mulvey sees the same forces at play; however, this time, created by a woman.  Mulvey states that throughout the seventies, women artists, like Mary Kelly, came to prominence by using theory and popular culture to investigate these psychic constructions.

Cindy Sherman, first showing work in the late seventies, used popular culture as her source material without using theory as a commentary and distanciation device. When her photographs were first shown, their insistent reiteration of representation of the feminine, and her use of herself as a model, in infinite varieties of masquerade, won immediate attention from critics who welcomed her as a counterpoint to feminist theoretical and conceptual art. The success of her early work, its acceptance by the ... art market and institutions ... helped to obscure ... the fact that the ideas it raised could not have been formulated without a prehistory of feminism and its theorization of the body and representation. 

In the final analysis, then, Mulvey's critique of Sherman is both historical and psychoanalytic. While her work has benefited immensely from the strong theoretical work of the previous generation of feminist artists in Britain and America, Sherman claims no historical lineage in relation to them. Sherman presents her practice as springing, so to speak, fully formed, from her own "intuition." With no overt relationship to other women artists or to any aspect of feminist theorizing, Sherman's work stands uncritically, as a compendium of women's roles, but in the sense of her lot in life, rather than as a methodology or strategy through which change is effected. Her images consolidate and secure women under the historical, patriarchal, male gaze, as fetishized objects of male fascination and desire. In fact, they do more. They represent the internalization of this imprisoned mentality. Sherman dooms herself to constant repetition of a masquerade produced for the male gaze, which is so familiar that it has become her own.

 Since the "rediscovery" in recent years of the photographic work of French artist Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob), some historians have proposed a comparison between her self-portraits and those of Sherman. Katy Kline, in her essay "In or Out of the Picture: Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman," points out that Cahun's adoption of a variety of personae includes both female and male stereotypes, from a variety of cultural points of view, and that Cahun is performing for herself, looking boldly out at the camera, while Sherman seems to be performing for an unacknowledged voyeur from whom her own gaze is more characteristically averted. --http://www.ago.net/www/information/exhibitions/modules/sherman/feminism.html


Cindy Sherman: Film Stills (2003) - Cindy Sherman, Peter Galassi

Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, a series of 69 black-and-white photographs created between 1977 and 1980, is widely seen as one of the most original and influential achievements in recent art. Witty, provocative and searching, this lively catalogue of female roles inspired by the movies crystallizes widespread concerns in our culture, examining the ways we shape our personal identities and the role of the mass media in our lives. ~Sherman began making these pictures in 1977 when she was 23 years old. The first six were an experiment: fan-magazine glimpses into the life (or roles) of an imaginary blond actress, played by Sherman herself. The photographs look like movie stills--or perhaps publicity pix--purporting to catch the blond bombshell in unguarded moments at home. The protagonist is shown preening in the kitchen and lounging in the bedroom. Onto something big, Sherman tried other characters in other roles: the chic starlet at her seaside hideaway, the luscious librarian, the domesticated sex kitten, the hot-blooded woman of the people, the ice-cold sophisticate and a can-can line of other stereotypes. She eventually completed the series in 1980. She stopped, she has explained, when she ran out of clichés.~Other artists had drawn upon popular culture but Sherman's strategy was new. For her the pop-culture image was not a subject (as it had been for Walker Evans) or raw material (as it had been for Andy Warhol) but a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made. Her film stills look and function just like the real ones--those 8 x 10 glossies designed to lure us into a drama we find all the more compelling because we know it isn't real. In the Untitled Film Stills there are no Cleopatras, no ladies on trains, no women of a certain age. There are, of course, no men. The 69 solitary heroines map a particular constellation of fictional femininity that took hold in postwar America--the period of Sherman's youth and the starting point for our contemporary mythology. In finding a form for her own sensibility, Sherman touched a sensitive nerve in the culture at large. Although most of the characters are invented, we sense right away that we already know them. That twinge of instant recognition is what makes the series tick and it arises from Cindy Sherman's uncanny poise. There is no wink at the viewer, no open irony, no camp.~In 1995, The Museum of Modern Art purchased the series from the artist, preserving the work in its entirety. This book marks the first time that the complete series will be published as a unified work, with Sherman herself arranging the pictures in sequence. She's good enough to be a real actress. --Andy Warhol~The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told. --Arthur Danto Essays by Peter Galassi and Cindy Sherman. --amazon.com

Office Killer (1997) - Cindy Sherman

Photographer and director Cindy Sherman has obviously always been interested in film. Her well-known Untitled Film Stills, from movies that don't exist--pregnant scenes that seem as though they are in medias res but are really staged--feature diverse characters who, upon closer examination, prove to be Sherman herself, every time. Her 1998 film debut, Office Killer, takes her postmodern playfulness with such narrative frames out of the equation--and leaves us with something more flatly macabre and less subtle than Sherman's other work.

Here, Carol Kane plays Dorine, a mousy, lonely, and introverted copyeditor for a consumer publication. Think for a moment what kind of person a copyeditor must be: this is the person whose job, whose passion, it is to know exactly where the apostrophe goes and to know the difference between effect and affect. The pressure can get to you.

Tyrannized at home by a domineering mother and tyrannized at work by backstabbing coworkers, downsizing, and newfangled computers, Dorine finds that the copy she cleans up is her only pleasure in life. As pressure builds and builds--Kane's performance exhibits amazing mastery of body language--Dorine finally caves and steps into an insanity that, in a horrifying, animalian fashion, has its own pleasantness and reason. Despite Kane's strong acting here, she is supported by flattish performances from Molly Ringwald, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Barbara Sukowa.

It is unclear if Sherman means to serve or redefine the concept of narrative through this emotional detachment she brings to the screen. Certainly, this isn't a conventional film, and its cinematography and innovative story are indeed attention-keeping, even entertaining, on a horror-flick level at least. If her goal is to serve narrative canonically, then she fails almost miserably. If her goal is to redefine narrative, then she may have achieved something here that most critics aren't clueing into. It's just unclear what this achievement is. --Erik J. Macki, amazon.com

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