Cindy Sherman: Dressing up

By Sharon Stewart

Cindy Sherman had come to the artworld a phenomenon unto herself. She has been deemed a photographer and a self-portraitist, labels she rejects although her body and camera are her media, her mind’s memories her messenger. It is from a self-advocated curiosity that she has to look in the mirror and not recognize herself. She has played dress-up since she was a young girl. Sometimes she would dress up in front of the mirror for three hours and then just disassemble the guise, but sometimes she would take her new self to a party. We the readers have been invited to quite a party of 89 personae in this book.
The first presented are her black and white Untitled Film Stills, many of which I first viewed in their mural form at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum in 1979. Their hugeness drew me in, making me feel part of the scene. Understandably some of that sensation is lost in the smaller book reproductions, but I still have fun being with her stereotypical 1950s females: Motel Molly, Seashore Sonia, City Cathy, Vacationing Velma, Housewife Helen. Then there are those rather situationless women who haunt and perplex me by their blurred obscureness or their lack of perceptible locale. There is an introspection that we understand to be inherent in the nature of this type of work, but it seems so much more insistent in these particular pieces. It is insightful to remember that up to this point these photographers were taken by Cindy’s friends and in some cases, her father.

With a turn of color in the 1980 Untitled series several significant changes came about. In her studio Cindy began to photograph herself in front of rear screen projected scenes. She brought her imaginary world as close in as possible, back home so to speak. However, these two elements did not jibe well and she abandoned this mode marking the beginning of the dissipation of her situational context.

Next in 1981 she made the Horizontals, a series initially commissioned by Artforum magazine, although the project was never published there. Still present is the 1950’s styled woman, but she is more a girl devastated and scared. The camera angle is more acute, the lighting is more harsh, and the expressions more forlorn. There is a kind of destitute destiny for these characters, many of whom have literally hit the floor.

Now Sherman had become a tremendous hit in the art world. Everyone wanted to know just who this Cindy Sherman really, really is. C’mon, Cindy, tell us. Perhaps the closest thing she offers are these 1982 Untitled pictures of just Cindy looking straight at us wearing the classical red dress cloth; no make-up, no wings, no props. There. All done. And it’s back to the matter at hand, dressing up.

These final Untitled images play to very little middle ground. Cindy has gone wild with the garnish makeup and funky lighting, using gels to cast mood hues. Here she is baring the polarities of life as well as the current androgyny. Either the characters are happy and mischievous or there is a devastated weariness about them.

Cindy Sherman has commented that she has drawn her characters from old European films, fashion photography, and that ubiquitous baby sitter, the TV. All these are hype media, hanging us hyper-reality that is in actuality nonreality. We look at these images daily as a relief from our daily images. There are those who live their lives through these provided images; checking their status vis a vis their latest acquisitions and consumptions. And yes, we do create our own reality and there are multifarious means for doing such. Truly living life, seeing the balance of the world, demands a rare perception that comes to those who have it not by miracle or magic, but by continuous probing and intense introspection.

Cindy Sherman has spent her twenties looking inside and outside herself and she has led many people along with her. And we have seen ourselves more than once in her over three hundred selves. She has evolved as these selves by spending her time alone, because of the ultimate control it brings. The irony of this state of solitude is that from it magnanimous vision has been created.