Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is one of the most influential artists of our time. She belongs to a generation who redefined the photograph and its place in an ever more visually oriented culture. Taking as her starting point the roles appointed to women in photographs, she creates accessible images that mirror the world in which we live. When Sherman established herself as an artist in New York in the mid-1970s, she was part of a movement interested in performance and Conceptual art. Several early works document the process by which she transformed herself from one character to another, following short narrative routes. In 1977–80 she produced a series of pictures that would lay the groundwork for the consistent artistic path that she would subsequently take. With the aid of costumes, wigs, and a few helpers she staged seventy female portraits that are collectively regarded as one of the principal works of American postmodernism. The images in the series, Untitled Film Stills, are not based on actual films, but resemble scenes from well-known films or evoke specific genres. They are symptomatic of the way in which Sherman works: she creates unique images that play on recognizable references. From the start, Sherman has used herself as a model, but her pictures are not self-portraits. She lets her own identity dissolve in the process of creating new characters: the aging actress who won’t let go of her dreams, or the over-painted society queen desperately ignoring her advancing years. The figures are recognizable and disquieting. We see ourselves and our time in her work with an alarming clarity. In the age of ever-increasing desire to be recognized, to be noticed, and with YouTube offering an easy fame, Sherman’s photographs seem more relevant than ever. Sherman always works in series, a format that offers her the freedom to develop different aspects of a concept. She touches on themes associated with fashion and the portrayal of women in the media, but a large part of her production is inspired by latent, destructive forces. In several series from the late 1980s and into the 90s, she created grotesque scenarios depicting nightmarish situations. The aesthetic of Surrealism was important to her in these years and her use of dolls, masks, and prostheses have been likened to Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic images. In certain series there are clear political undertones, touching on the atrocities of war (Civil War, 1991) and artistic freedom of expression (Sex, 1992), while in other works she has been inspired by narrative forms from popular culture, such as fairy tales and horror movies. The theme of the macabre that recurs in several of Sherman series is also subtly present in her portrayal of female roles. Through her many portraits of women, she thematicizes the choice of the individual when faced with society’s demands and expectations, thereby highlighting the less attractive sides of our culture. She has explored the portrait genre in several series, not least borrowing inspiration from historical paintings; in spite of her talents with make-up, she often makes the transformation process obvious and even obtrusive. The ability of the photograph to accentuate surface, make-up, and façade adds to the disquieting undertones that are revealed. Her alarming and hysterical fashion photography is as likely to stimulate reflection on deviation and destruction as it is to trigger a political debate on the objectivization of women. The relevance of Sherman’s work has ensured that she is always firmly placed at the junctions of several discourses, including feminism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. There has been an extensive theorization of her work, but this hasn’t minimized the immediate visual impact of her work. During a career spanning more than thirty years, she has created images that touch the raw nerves of our self-perception. Her inspiration comes from the endless stream of images to which we are all exposed every day, and the resulting photographs have been described as challenging, provocative, and eloquent studies of contemporary identity. In an age when the opportunity for fame has grown hand in hand with the availability of new technology, the message of Sherman’s work seems ever more relevant.