JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 large-scale color photographs, framed in black and exhibited on three walls in the south gallery and on four walls in the north gallery. All are untitled dye sublimation prints, dated 2019, and numbered #602-03, consecutively #609-15, and #618. Physical sizes of the images range from roughly 66×100 to 91×107 inches; most are horizontals, with one vertical (85×77 in.) and one square (91×91 in.) Each print is available in an edition of 6+1AP. (Installation and detail shots below.)
The exhibition may be viewed by appointment only (arrangements should be made through the gallery website).
Comments/Context: What does it mean to pose for a photograph?
In the latter part of Cindy Sherman’s career, this fundamental and not always easy-to-answer question has moved toward the center of her endeavors. If she devoted herself in the 1970s and ’80s (notably in the Untitled Film Stills) to cataloging the myriad restrictive or laughable ways that women have been photographed in magazines and movies, by aggressive paparazzi or male directors hired to glamorize female stereotypes, she has presented us since the early ‘90s (beginning with the so called Art History series) with people (usually women) who proudly, or at least knowingly, display themselves in front of the lens.
No longer passive actors reflecting someone else’s scenarios, her characters have become more self-directed participants in their own lives. In the last twenty years, she has been asking us not only to guess who her subjects are supposed to represent—to construct social, temporal, national, and psychological identities from telltale clues of hairstyle, dress, facial and body expressions, décor, architecture, and photographic stylistics—but also to ask ourselves why these people should be there in the first place.
What backstory has prompted them to sit or stand for this formal encounter with a photographer? And why has this unseen figure behind the camera deemed them worthy of our attention? What does each hope to gain from the transaction?
The ten portraits in Sherman’s new show, like those in her last one, are designed to bring these questions to the forefront. Who these people are, and why they have chosen to pose for her in these elegant settings, is never entirely clear. Less opaque is that a photographer’s curiosity about them, and the sumptuousness of the color prints, bestows on them a cloak of respectability and forces us to make some tentative guesses about their identities.
The people here are life-size or perhaps, because Sherman herself is petite, larger than life. None of the portraits is full-length; almost all are three-quarters. In the two seated portraits, the feet are cropped off. No one is visibly indigent. Rather, should we want to believe they are the property owners of the wooded or grassy spaces they occupy, many are exceedingly wealthy. Unlike many of the women in her previous shows, no one has been worn down by age; the majority appear to be (with make-up or digitized erasures) a few years younger than Sherman herself, who is 66.
Gender in many cases is hard to discern, not so much it seems as an artistic statement of solidarity with LGBTQ but to maintain the focus of the viewer by scrambling the usual signals: classifying the sex of a subject is one of the first questions we seek to answer when reading a face or body. Sherman wants to make sure we can’t be sure about this issue and so will keep searching the photograph for superficial clues. When casting herself as a man, Sherman follows the lead of Claude Cahun, Frida Kahlo, and Gillian Wearing, choosing not to exaggerate herself as a hyper-masculine body and persona but to perform subdued androgyny as the preferred state of being between the sexes.
The sexually ambiguous figure who stares at us in Untitled #611 is typical. He/she has a quizzical bearing, peering at us through wire-rimmed glasses, head bent forward as if uncertain why anyone would find anything about him/her worthy of our consideration. Sherman underscores this insecurity by dressing him/her in clothes that are a size too big. The blue shirt, embroidered with two large pheasants on each side of the placket, is worn buttoned up to the neck; he/she keeps her thumbs tucked into a pair of high-riding green cotton slacks, worn without a belt. The eccentric get-up and awkward gestures elicit protective feelings from us, as if the photographer has intruded or not succeeded in convincing the subject of selfless motives.
Four of the ten photographs are double portraits. In Untitled #618, a couple who appear to be brother and sister are arranged before a misty blue backdrop with Germanic atmospherics—water, mountains, and an enchanted forest of dead trees with menacing branches. Their relationship is undefined. His hair is longer than hers. He drapes his left arm over her left shoulder but not possessively. Each is wearing an absurd sweater and a self-satisfied smirk. The pair of sisters who stand before us in Untitled #612 have an imperious assurance that may be more justified, although they too are costumed unconventionally (the one to our left in a feathered coat, the one on our right in a jacket printed with kittens.) The artist has acquiesced to their grandiose sense of themselves by printing digitally a pair of larger, fainter portraits of the women that reverberate in the snowy landscape like stereo echoes.
All of the photographs are composites, the figures presented against digitized backgrounds. Three of these were taken at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, the English estate near Cranbrook, Kent that was home to Vita Sackville-West, distinguished gardener, snobbish social director of the Bloomsbury set, and one of Virginia Woolf’s lovers. The couple in Untitled #609, posed close to the camera in a field with conical towers in the distance, bear on their grim faces the commanding mien of inherited money and position. The supercilious young man depicted in Untitled #602, languidly at ease among the topiary and flagstones at Sissinghurst, would be insufferable if he did not wear under his camel hair coat a t-shirt imprinted with a Cindy Sherman photograph.
As she is both subject of her portraits and composer of them, she exerts total control over the final product. Unlike a commercial session, where a dissipated celebrity or an inept lighting assistant can ruin hours of preparation in the studio, she must assume all the blame for failure. What’s astonishing is that her success rate over the decades has been so high.
Irony is central to Sherman’s strategy, and a key to her worldwide popularity with collectors and art audiences. Many of the women and men in her portraits are oblivious to the effect they are creating, often recklessly so. Their supreme confidence in their sense of style is embodied in her performances as comically misplaced. Sherman undercuts brimming optimism with costume touches, such as tragic fashion accessories—she has unerring taste in ill-chosen eyeglasses and, in this series, ridiculous sweaters—or by smiles of unwarranted sunniness.
This attitude could be taken as condescension if her photographs did not also betray affection for the foibles of those she caricatures, indeed an identification with them. Americans are derided by Europeans for wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Sherman, a thoroughly American artist in her upbringing, is able to convey depths of thought and feeling while always disguising them. None of her maladroit characters is mocked so cruelly that we don’t detect an umbilical attachment, a secret and shared embarrassment. She sides with the weak and misbegotten over the strong and advantaged while relying on actorly craft and novelistic framing devices to buffer herself from sentimentality.
That said, her connection to the people here is not as heartfelt as in previous series. As a group, they have the professional impersonality of portraits commissioned by a luxury fashion or travel magazine, such as Town & Country or Departures. Why Sherman should be laboring to dramatize the lives of these particular types and not engaging with issues closer to home may be a question many gallery visitors ask themselves. Her increasing dependance on digital touch-ups to faces and hands in post-production is turning her people into painted dolls and squeezing the life blood out of them as photographs.
It’s late in her career for Sherman to abandon the self-portrait, although the temptation by now to strike out in another direction must be a daily torment. The current politics of representation circumscribes the types she can safely self-depict. Her oeuvre is limited in its demographics to Caucasians, and she has lately been exploring the attitudes and environments of men and women born or residing far north of the equator. To be clear: I am not advocating that she darken her skin for picture-making purposes, nor am I lamenting that for her to do so would be grossly offensive; I am simply pointing out that the cast of characters she is able to play no longer reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of her own country, much less the global community.
That must be frustrating for her and is potentially deadly for any artist hoping to compete with the chaos of reality. Should we interpret this array of etiolated but coolly disdainful Nordic folk posed on their estates as her sly commentary on white privilege?
If so, it may be too muted a message for these embattled times.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $300000 each. 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.