JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale color photographs, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the three adjoining gallery spaces on the first floor. No specific print process information was given beyond “color photograph” on the checklist. The works are available in editions of 6, and range in size from 64×91 to 80×140. The images are dated either 2010/2011 or 2010/2012. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Cindy Sherman’s current show of new work is surprisingly full of risks and experiments, announcing with authority that whatever you may have seen over at the MoMA, there will be no resting on her laurels; she is still challenging herself to extend the boundaries of her artistic practice. In these photographs, Sherman’s picture making approach has been more directly influenced by new digital tools, impacting both the look of her characters and the scope and texture of their surroundings.
For the first time, Sherman has used broad natural landscapes as backdrops to her portraits. Taken primarily in Iceland after the recent volcanic eruption, her photographic views are full of rocky hillsides, barren river valleys, and open pastures weighed down by moody grey skies. Dusty flat plains give way to mossy outcroppings, the exploding ash in the sky swirling like the clouds in a Turner painting. Sherman’s characters float in front of these bleakly beautiful settings, seemingly disconnected from their environments. The landscapes provide some clues (or blind alleys) for potential narratives, but the characters themselves make no attempt to clarify any meaningful connections. Unlike the interiors from the recent society portraits (which provided some useful context), the landscapes upend our ability to find any thread of a plausible story.
Sherman’s use of fine-grained digital manipulation is also much more pronounced in these works. The landscapes have been minutely textured to look like painterly brush strokes, softening their harshness just a bit, and the faces of Sherman’s characters have been digitally altered to elongate noses, widen eyes, and flatten severe expressions. While she has substituted post-production editing for her previous eccentricies of makeup and stagecraft, as always, her handiwork is still somehwat visible, intentionally reminding us just how far from reality these people are. Dour bloodless faces peer down with steely intensity, with just a touch of puzzling distorted detail to keep us off balance.
I haven’t yet mentioned the elaborate and often delightfully improbable costumes these women are wearing, and here again we see some experimentation by Sherman. All of these gowns and outfits came from the Chanel archive, but these images don’t look anything like traditional fashion photographs. The poses are wrong, the scenes totally incongruous; the haute couture fashions are at once entirely misplaced and quietly celebrated. A yellow and green belted jacket and puffy skirt combination takes on a prim Western pioneer look against its mountainous backdrop, while a shimmery gold and blue concoction looks like the ceremonial garb of some nomadic tribeswoman when set against furrowed grassy hills. The lush intricacy of the fashions and the starkness of the terrain make for odd bedfellows.
The end result of all this innovation is a set of intense pictures that have some of the trappings of broad, romantic landscape scenes of the past, but with an overall feeling that lies somewhere between defiant loneliness and quirky, confrontational glamour. All of the component parts are inconclusive and disconnected, leaving the viewer incapable of really figuring out what is going on. While Sherman is clearly exploiting some of the aesthetic freedoms that these larger digital tableaux can offer, she continues to purposefully avoid giving us any easy answers, forcing us to find our own meanings amid the feathers and the dirt.
Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at either $400000 or $450000 based on size. With Sherman’s excellent retrospective still on view at the MoMA (review here), there has been a flood of her works into the secondary markets this spring, likely hoping to capitalize on all the attention. I believe there were 26 different Shermans for sale in the Contemporary Art sales at the big three auction houses, plus countless others at the various New York art fairs, particularly the Armory. In general, 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. A print from that same edition (the orange sweater centerfold) was sold this spring by the Akron Art Museum and fetched roughly $1 million less than the record, perhaps a sign that prices are stabilizing with so much material now becoming available.