Cindy Sherman @Hauser & Wirth

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 photographic works, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation and detail shots below.)

The following works have been included in the show:

  • 9 gelatin silver prints with chromogenic print collaged elements, 2023, sized roughly 40×28, 40×29, 40×30, 40×31 inches, in editions of 6
  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 2023, sized roughly 40×28, 40×29, 40×30, 40×31 inches, in editions of 6
  • 4 gelatin silver prints with chromogenic print collaged elements, 2010/2023, sized roughly 20×13 inches, in editions of 6
  • 4 gelatin silver prints, 2010/2023, sized roughly 20×13 inches, in editions of 6

A catalog of of this body of work has been published by the gallery (here).

Comments/Context: In the decade or so since her MoMA retrospective in 2012 (reviewed here), or perhaps going back even a few years further to her standout 2008 images of society women, Cindy Sherman has been working along a relatively stable aesthetic trajectory. In periodic gallery shows, in 2012 (reviewed here), 2016 (reviewed here), and 2020 (her last at Metro Pictures, reviewed here), she has offered up a steady stream of larger-than-life-sized scenes featuring posed characters of various kinds. Along the way, she has played more liberally with digital effects, doublings/multi-person arrangements (all her, of course), and wider/more immersive landscape settings, but has essentially stayed centered on quasi-narrative setups where she takes on particular roles and identities.

The pandemic inserted a disruption into this relatively smooth artistic progression, and Sherman’s new works feel like a fresh-eyes perspective on themes she has been exploring for decades. Feeling blocked during that claustrophobic period, she returned to some portraits she made in 2010 and started to play with them, flipping them from color to black-and-white and then digitally manipulating the facial features. This improvisational activity provided the creative spark that Sherman needed, and soon she had extended that effort to include not only those reworked older images, but a new batch of pictures made with a higher resolution camera, further amplifying some of the same ideas.

The first thing that stands out about these works is how closely cropped they are. The reworked images from 2010 are extremely tight, with Sherman’s face filling the frame out to the edges, with little or no room for anything else. The new 2023 photographs step back just one step or two, with faces still very much the main attraction, but with a bit more hair and clothing in the surroundings to hint at possible personalities or narratives. Sherman hasn’t been in this close since the mid-1970s, and this pushed forward intimacy adds to the feeling of intrusive discomfort that courses through the pictures.

While we think of Sherman typically constructing her portraits with wigs, makeup, props, and costumes, that approach to building up a character isn’t as possible when the camera is brought in so close. So Sherman opts for a different mode of construction, essentially breaking down her own face into the component parts of eyes/eyebrows, noses, mouths/lips, and areas of skin and then reassembling those facial variables in alternate configurations. Sherman accomplishes this in two ways: digitally when working in black-and-white, and with old school cut-and-paste collage when working in color. Many of her resulting portraits mix these two methods, creating faces that are assembled from chromatically divergent piece parts.

With Sherman turning 70 this year, it might be tempting to see some of the grotesqueries on view here as a broader meditation on female aging. And while that theme may be part of what’s simmering in her artistic mind, the more dominant idea seems to be an almost Picasso-like or Cubist formal rearrangement of what a face can be. Since Sherman is assembling her composite faces from multiple exposures shot at different moments and from different angles and perspectives, her end results collapse that multiplicity into one strangely integrated likeness. Some of the strongest, and most disturbing, of her creations feature mismatched eyes, noses that turn the wrong way, or grimacing mouths cobbled onto otherwise smiling visages. Each of the expressive portraits has this echo of Frankenstein, the faces sewn together into masks of subtly unsettling disfigurement.

When we really get close to Sherman’s faces, they break down, the digital edges of the image fragments becoming more visible and the color areas becoming visible as glued on collage elements. The high resolution source pictures make every pore, eyelash, wrinkle, and messy sweep of pancake foundation makeup pop with precise detail, turning some of the faces into textural studies, with surrounding tactile accompaniments like flowy wigs, furs, tulle, and even one wrapped bath towel. In most cases, it’s as if the faces have defiantly agreed to resolve for only an instant, before shuddering back into a continuous flow of shifting instability. A few pictures push the faces further toward eerie distortion, elongating nostrils, squishing necks, and twisting mouths into more gnarled and freakish possibilities, but most opt for a sense of durably off-kilter disquiet rather than deliberately provocative ugliness.

Seen as a group, these portraits are some of Sherman’s most painterly compositions, in that we can more actively follow her hand in the building up of the faces. While the component parts are crisp photographs, the composite images feel confidently expressive and weird, pushing the medium towards emotional states far beyond straightforward documentation. The collective discomfort of these women is somehow entrancing, with the most memorable of the portraits refusing to coalesce into easy approachability.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $100000 or $200000 each, based on size. Sherman’s prints are ubiquitous at auction, both in Contemporary Art and Photography sales. Recent auction prices have ranged from as low as roughly $2000 (for one of her large edition prints) to as high as her then-world record $3.89 million price set in 2011, with iconic images routinely finding buyers at six and seven figures.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    ‘Centerfolds’ was Sherman’s magnificent achievement – the apotheosis of the film stills – which Artforum commissioned then insanely rejected!

    Further down the line she went all yukky and icky and schloky, and occasionally faux porno, and this is another manifestion of that, with the ‘sewn faces’ and ‘this echo of Frankenstein’ (the monster, rather than the doctor).

    There’s a children’s therapist in a Nancy Friday book I remember she referenced, who theorised that as helpless infants we are furious and resentful at the thing that nourishes and protects us (our parents/guardians), and that’s the way I understand what Sherman has been doing for a long time. It is full-on loathing at times, provoking the all-powerful elite of the art world that has given her so much which is simultaneously oppressive and controlling, and entitled, and ugly. That loathing is also clearly self-directed.

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