Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cindy Sherman @ Gagosian Gallery, Paris

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#547), 2010-12
When I was first introduced to Cindy Sherman’s photographs as an art history major at Melbourne University, I was really excited by the Untitled Film Stills, particularly in the originality of their invention of what I would call a historical postmodernism. Ever since, however, I have found her photographs to range from mildly disappointing to outright offensive. I remember seeing an exhibition of recent work in a New York gallery about ten years ago, and being offended by the reek of a colonization of the image of socially less-privileged women. Similarly, I am not fully convinced by the repetition ad infinitum of her self-portrait, a strategy that has become her signature process and aesthetic. It is all that she does.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#548), 2010-12

Indeed, the recent photographs on display at Gagosian’s Paris gallery are a long way from the film stills. In this current series of untitled images, Sherman the actress and star of her own photographs is seen posing in Romantic landscapes. She wears outfits courtesy of the Chanel archives, garments that are rich and luxurious in their fabric, ornamentation and form. The discontinuity between the exaggerations of the figure and the depthless landscapes is contrived for maximum collision and incompatibility. The landscapes gesture towards being dreamy, towards an invitation to fall into them. However, they are cold — in color, temperature, and thanks to a digital manipulation process that makes for a harshness. And so, I at least was never tempted into contemplation of the landscapes. On the contrary, Sherman’s figure is so arresting — through its composition, performance, detail — that it is easy to walk around the exhibition taking no notice of the brown, grey and other tonally depressing landscapes. Thus, Sherman reverses the diminished figure in an overwhelming and animated landscape that is the preoccupation of Romantic painting. Similarly, the separation and collision of foreground and background, figure and landscape cracks open the seduction to contemplation that is so typical of Romanticism.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#540), 2010-12
Sherman’s critics and commentators are always quick to point out the political importance of her work, an importance that still makes sense within wider discursive contexts on identity. The manipulation and undoing of Romantic yearning is surely the site of these photographic statements about the self, identity, and particularly, women’s social and cultural identity in these images. The foregrounding of the artist as performing self in a landscape to which she has no relevance, a landscape from which she is completely alienated, could logically be interpreted as the photographs’ raison d’être. Because the outfits are inappropriate, to the point of irony, the regard and hand articulations are exaggerated and cold, the foreground-background relations are disproportionate, and so on, the image arrests us, it prevents us from falling into the photograph. We are thus commanded to confront the emptiness of this reality, its drain of emotion, its absurdity even. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#551), 2010-12
While I understand the importance of these claims in Sherman’s photography, I still can’t help thinking that through the engagement with Romanticism, the urgent politics that were so provocative in the Untitled Film Stills are now lost. The early work, and particularly, the Untitled Film Stills were instrumental in the ignition of a discourse on the representation of woman, and the imperative to arrest the ogling of a viewer that had been identified as the most oppressive strategy of Hollywood film. However, I am not convinced that this later work is intervening in public discourse to the same extent. It is true that, rather than having a male wanderer in a powerful overwhelming landscape, Sherman places a lone woman in a landscape that is on the precipice of disappearance, thereby screaming the imperative to stand up and take notice.  However, because the reference of the recent photographs is a Romantic aesthetic, it doesn’t have the currency or the urgency of intervention that was so ground breaking in the earlier works critique of the popular cultural landscape of Hollywood film. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#552), 2012

All Images Courtesy of Gagosian, 2012

1 comment:

Misplaced said...

I recently saw the Cindy Sherman exhibit at the Moma- Very cool. It was funny how a lot of the public enjoying the work seemed to look a great deal like her characters.