JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color portraits, of varying sizes, all larger than life size, hung in gilded frames throughout the first and second floor galleries. (Installation shot at right.) All from 2008 and in editions of 6.
Comments/Context: We tend to visit gallery shows at odd hours (mostly to avoid crowds), and as a result, once in a while, we run into a group tour of “society ladies”. These are typically wealthy women in their 50s and 60s, dressed up with fancy furs and handbags, with a little too much makeup and hairspray, listening to the “art consultant” drone on about contemporary art, as they move from gallery to gallery in Chelsea.
We ran into just such a group at the Cindy Sherman show at Metro Pictures, and instead of this being an annoyance, an astonishing “happening” seemed to take place. Sherman’s pictures (her first new work since 2004) are once again portraits of herself in a dizzying array of costumes and looks, but this time, her keen observations are focused on women of privilege. They are staged in the time worn tradition of “family portraits”, with the matriarchs and spouses outfitted in their fanciest clothes and jewelry (and a few with some obvious “body work” and Botox), with stately settings and soft focus backgrounds. Sherman’s exaggerations make most of these pictures amusing, over the top, and a little ridiculous at first, but the irony fades quickly and the images are hauntingly real (even with their crazy distortions) and in the end, many are quite unhappy. Her dismantling of the conventions of beauty and aging are thorough and unflinching, and yet there is an undercurrent of empathy here (these women are trying their best and are still trapped) that has been missing from many of her other works.
So imagine then the tour group faced with these pictures: the unflattering portraits on the walls look surprisingly like them. I watched their faces as they wandered around, and these pictures clearly hit home, perhaps a little too close for comfort for many. None of these women found the pictures funny or light hearted (think of the rehearsal dinner “roast” that falls flat and you’ll know what I mean). The crowd had nothing but furrowed brows and frowns. It was truly a wild experience to look back and forth from the walls to the “patrons” and see the reactions.
Over the years, not all of Cindy Sherman’s impersonations and staged scenes have worked for us. But these new pictures are consistently successful and thought provoking. There seems to be a more real identification with the conventions that bind these women, and Sherman’s response seems more intimate and genuine.
Collector’s POV: This is the best show of new work we have seen this season (by quite a large margin). These are extremely well made, original images that will likely become iconic pictures in Sherman’s body of work. This is an important show by an artist at the top of her game. Don’t miss it.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
Through December 23rd
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