So, while taking a virtual stroll through the internet the other day I stumbled across a little photographer I once followed named Cindy Sherman. Now, I’ve taken a handful of photography and photography-related courses throughout my schooling, but I don’t think I’ve ever really studied Cindy Sherman’s work in the arena of academia before. So, if any of what I’m about to say seems glib or under-researched, I apologize. There is just something really compelling about her stuff that I thought I’d take a minute to talk about. And it’s not just compelling in each piece as one salient image, but in the bizarre range of her catalog. Her photos (and her sculptures, to that end) straddle this bizarre line between formal and experimental. Between glamorous and grotesque. Between classic and cheap. First and foremost, I’m particularly interested by her representation of the female gender. I like to think of her progression of her work as a dark process of self-discovery. In her earlier photos, she always seems to situate herself in very rigid societal “sctructures” in which she’s somehow marginalized by her own presence. In her early self-portraits, she really plays up her role as a woman. Look at what she’s doing: she’s washing dishes, she’s fetching a book from the library, she’s all dolled up in her best gown standing by her vanity. Everything is poised to perfection, but she as a subject seems peripheral. When set against the backdrop of a New York cityscape, she looks bewildered and out of place. At the kitchen sink she’s distracted and staring down some imagined third person outside the frame. Even when she’s all done up in her finest clothes, all she can seem to do is languish on her bed. To draw a silly yet more contemporary comparison, she reminds me of the female protagonists in an animated Disney film: they’re always so bored and wistful within the walls of their regimented, relegated female lives. It seems like she’s just waiting to make some kind of escape. However, she also seems hyper-aware that someone is looking at her. For every wistful gaze and pregnant sigh, she has this poise to her that makes it very clear she wants you to look at her.
It’s still a voyeuristic sensation, though. We’re looking in at her as if she’s in a fishbowl. Everything that she does is staged and, in a sense, contrived. In her later work, we see her finally get out of that head of hers (or, actually, even deeper in her head). From a more obvious visual standpoint, she transitions from black and white to color photography. But as her photos get more “colorful”, they also get much darker and more personal. In every way that her earlier work seems staged and voyeuristic, the later pieces completely unravel as if the grotesque innards of her mind just come dumping out. Here she ditches the visual landscape of, arguably, the “hyper-real” and dives head first into the surreal. She takes herself as a subject and completely eliminates any context at all. It’s not about that anymore. It’s not about this space that she’s forced to exist in anymore. The new “space” that her photos exist in is the often frightening space of her own psyche. She is bearing herself to us.
But the visceral shock of these images would never have been so starkly punctuated without the notion of her earlier work. And the role of gender starts to blur in these later photographs. We see Cindy herself augmenting her body and her face to look more like a man in some cases. And, on the other side of that coin, we see her completely augmenting her form to exaggerate and even satirize her own femininity. She also plays with segmenting the human form. She creates models or replicas of bodies that are simply disembodied genitalia. Some of which feature both male and female genitalia at once. So this motif of contradiction extends beyond just the style of the photograph, but the form of the subject itself (how terribly post-modern, for lack of a better buzz-word). It’s as if the body is just this thing. We all have one, some are different, but so what? Let’s just deconstruct it and play with the pieces.
But what makes this so interesting is that tension (bearing in mind her tendency to blur forms/styles) between how bizarre and yet how funny they seem to be. They’re stylized to the point of being campy. But even with that obvious level of camp, nothing ever feels too gimmicky or exploitative. You feel the sense that Cindy feels genuinely compelled to embody these characters. As if we’re peering into her brain and seeing these different cogs of her persona working all at once. And in every person, there are so many facets that exist simultaneously; everyone has a glamorous side, a grotesque side, a silly side etc. She is able to visually manipulate herself to embody these sides of herself. Of course in doing so, she takes these sides and exaggerates them to a whole new extreme. And of course, aside from all that, her photos are all just dynamic and interesting and intriguing. So, let’s all tip our hats to that wacky lady who is totally comfortable bearing every side of herself to us…Cindy Sherman.