Uncivil Wars

by Ed Osowski

Civil War Series by Cindy Sherman commissioned by the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina and shown in 1991 at the Gibbes Museum of Art as part of the group show Places with a Past: New Site Specific Art in Charleston at Texas Gallery, June 15-July 24, 1993

At forty, Cindy Sherman is approaching the chronological midpoint of her career. An exhibition of six photographic images from her “Civil War Series” and a sevent unrelated image provided an opportunity to review her career and achievements.1
Central to Sherman’s photographic work has been her use of the human figure. As she gained recognition as a personality, the presence of her image became a defining factor in her photographs. Part of the visual pleasure of viewing her photographs was finding Sherman beneath the disguises and identifying what had been added to create the image seen in the photograph.
Throughout her career, what Sherman has done by her persistent use of the body has been, quite simply, to reject the vocabulary and aims of modernism. Her early works, now so familiar that they seem to have been always part of the visual and intellectual terrain of our times, hardly need to be described. In brief, they are intelligent, politicized, and charged by their engagement with social and cultural issues.2But they are also anything but mere illustrations of a critique of the culture. The viewer of a Sherman photograph sense that there is a narrative at work in the image—that the photograph is part of a story—but that the remaining parts of the text will not be supplied. Sherman challenges the viewer to provide the remainder of the text and furnishes only that one image with which to reconstruct the text.
The second room at Texas Gallery was devoted to the six images from the “Civil War Series.” In these works, signs of death are everywhere—a leg, a foot, an arm, a hand, an open palm. Pieces of bodies we believe have fallen in battle. What makes these works unusual for Sherman is her disappearance from each photograph’s surface. The viewer never seses a face and thus is never able to identify the sex of these body parts. To suggest that these "must" be men simply because women did not fight in the American Civil War is to fall into Sherman's trap: Nothing about these images places them firmly in our Civil War. They could be Sherman's version of events in Bosnia or refer more broadly to domestic violence—the civil/domestic wars that terrorize women.
In two images, Sherman planted human skulls among the arms and legs. What are we to make of them? They seem Io defy logic, these symbols of destruction and death, introduced like metaphors onto a battlefield strewn with fresh body pans. But the last thing driving Sherman is illustration. Her aim is to remind the viewer that merely illustrating scenes from the Civil War holds no appeal for her. These images are works representing the effects of any civil or domestic war, a reading supported by one image in which a vaguely feminine looking leg and thigh clothed in a white undergarment fills the horizontal space.
To search for actual images Sherman may have used as models is a vain exercise. While there may be hints of works by Alexander Gardner or Timothy H. O’Sullivan in certain images they remain, at best, only tantalizing hints. Sherman's concern, surely, is not to pay homage to war photographers. Knowing the works of Matthew Brady and his compatriots enhances our appreciation for what Sherman has done but doesn't explain what she has accomplished.
We remember that her "history portraits" point indirectly at the works they echo. So, these six works, quiet and calm and eerie, "feel” like Gardner’s Home for a Rebel Sharp-shooter. And, like Gardner's photograph, these are also manipulated photographs, bodies and props arranged to produce a powerful effect. What Sherman does quote are the silence and stasis of the large body of Civil War photographs. Prevailing technology was incapable of supporting the picture-making of war photographers such as Cornell Capa. For Sherman and her nineteenth century antecedents war images become part of the meditative act.
Instead, it seems more appropriate to consider the works of two contemporary artists—the filmmaker David Lynch and photographer Andres Serrano—when considering Sherman’s series. In the opening scenes of Lynch'sBlue Velvet, the camera focuses with great attention on a body in the grass—a striking similarity—to Sherman's point of view. She has shot them at ground level, her camera barely removed from the scenes it captures. In Serrano’s Morgue photographs we find the same quiet brooding and reverential qualities that underline Sherman’s images.
Always concerned with directing the viewer toward the artificiality of her art, Sherman aims to liberate photography from its link to literal description and free it from illustration and verisimilitude. She has done this, not by opting for locating abstract images in the "real" world as Aaron Siskind has chosen, but through a more radical approach that teases us with appearance of reality. So these six "Civil War" images—with their layers of jelly spread thinly to resemble blood, with badly created wounds, artificial grass and fake insects—contain nothing to trick the viewer into thinking that Sherman has somehow stepped back in time. Her image could only be taken now. In these six works, Sherman has dropped the theatrics of her older works for a new approach, a new angle.3 These are bravura works that achieve their bold on the viewer by how very different they are from her other works.

1. Born in 1954, Sherman has been exhibiting for nearly twenty years. In 1976 she graduate SUNY at Buffalo and was included in a group show at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery. Four years later, her brief apprenticeship ended with a one-person show at new York’s Metro Pictures—still her New York dealer. She received a one-person show at the CAM, Houston in 1982 and was featured in a 1982 Texas Gallery exhibition.
2. Sherman’s earliest works resembled “B” movie stills. Between 1976 and 1982, she cast herself in various disguises—waif, victim, perky co-ed. Initially, these images seemed derived from popular films such as those of Hitchcock, Vadim, or Godard. Clearly it was Sherman beneath the wigs and costumes, both behind and in front of the camera, controlling the image making process and, from an equally important feminist position, controlling the content.
3. The author acknowledges and appreciates a conversation with Susie Morgan during which Morgan provided her views on Sherman’s “theatrics.”