Sherman, Cindy (1954—)

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Sherman, Cindy (1954—)

To some extent, Cindy Sherman has reached cult figure status in the artworld. With her ability to transform herself into various subjects, Sherman uses her photography as a way to confront and explore the representations of women in society; additionally, she challenges ideas about appearance. With the showing of her first series, the black and white photographs in the Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), Sherman burst upon the art scene. Immediately recognized for her new way of approaching photography while promoting a feminist viewpoint, Sherman, in her international exhibitions, has generated a large following and prompted much discussion about many issues. Her images cross the boundaries of several genres, yet, essentially, all of her photographs deal with the ideas of exhibitionism, voyeurism, and in many cases, the portrayal of women. Her theatrical works employ both art theories and critical issues from the 1980s and 1990s, and actively engage critics, collectors, museums, and the general public.

For an artist who so quickly became successful with her images of sometimes surreal, horrific, and always fascinating depictions of invented characters, Sherman had a simple upbringing. She was born, the youngest of five children, on January 19, 1954, in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Not long after her birth, Sherman's father, an engineer, and her mother, a school teacher, moved the family to Huntington Beach, Long Island, where she grew up. For fun, Sherman would dress up in her mother's and grandmother's clothes, but she was not trying to be "pretty." Even at an early age Sherman was trying to create new characters. As an adult, she continued a form of "dressup," shopping at second-hand stores to find clothing and props to enhance her characters that she would develop in front of a mirror. This element of her personality would directly feed into later images.

While studying painting at the State University College in Buffalo, New York, Sherman often produced self-portraits. She found difficulty expressing some of her ideas in this medium, however, and turned to photography. Failing her first photography class due to troubles with the technical aspects, Sherman began focusing on ideas rather than technology; this finally produced some success. Sherman's friend, artist Robert Longo, suggested that she incorporate her "dress-up" sessions into her artwork. It was then that Sherman found her niche; it provided her with a way to assert her ideas about the roles and depiction of women. Sherman graduated with a B.A. in 1976 and not long after, received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1977. The money gave her the resources to move into New York City and helped finance her first project.

Appropriating ideas and images from "film noir" and movies of the 1950s and 1960s, Sherman's black and white Untitled Film Stills carry nostalgic overtones. Sherman has used herself as a model to portray and identify stereotypical roles of women—the femme fatale, the housewife, and the innocent office girl, for example. The photographs are not self portraits, but are studies of characters that Sherman has invented. In each image she dresses up and applies make-up to change or obscure some of her facial features, thus creating new characters. She feels that her face becomes a canvas. The Untitled Film Stills are essays influenced by the media. Sherman adapts the messages promoted in the media regarding the universal archetypes of women and holds them up for scrutiny. She questions how the structuring of identity relates to society's visions of womanhood.

Continuing to examine mass media, Sherman began to use her constructed identities exclusively in color images, delving into the emotions and situations of her representations. Her artwork of the early 1980s dealt with portrayals of women in the porn and fashion industries. Commissioned to make fashion images for several designers, boutiques, and magazines, Sherman created unglamorous images that directly contrasted with most fashion photographs. The delineation between commercial photography and fine art becomes blurred with Sherman's work. She has also imbued her works with social commentary, referencing the psychological and emotional toll brought on by conforming to society's ideals. Sherman reveals and highlights internal pathos in her Fairy Tales and Disaster images (1985-89). These horrific and grotesque images portray the dark side of fairy tales. The subject matter of the photographs becomes less concerned with identities invented by Sherman. She begins to remove herself from the images in a blatant way; yet often found in the photographs are unrecognizable aspects of her body.

In History Portraits (1988-1990), Sherman adapted elements from several famous paintings and combined them to create parodies of historical images and icons. She photographed herself with exaggerated make-up, costumes, and props. The characterizations take on specific identities: the Madonna and Bacchus, for example. After this series, Sherman removed her body from the images completely. By manipulating dolls and interchangeable body parts ordered from a medical supply magazine, Sherman created strange still life tableaux in her Sex Pictures (1992). This series proved to be controversial; many critics felt this work was pornographic. The work, however, surpasses pornography; the clinical approach that Sherman employed removes any erotic overtones and infuses the images with an artificiality. The images were a reaction to censorship issues caused by the debate in defining obscenity and pornography that the National Endowment for the Arts used in the grant award process in the 1990s. Horror and Surrealist Pictures (1994-96) continued to use masks and objects, which become almost undiscernible due to Sherman's use of several photographic processes including double exposures. These color saturated images again refer to the inner psychological and emotional elements that constitute identity.

Sherman's last project, the horror movie Office Killer (1997), is a logical extension of her artwork. In all of her images Sherman plays off of existing elements in mass media culture. She finds inspiration in movies, fairy tales, fashion, and books. Using components from these groups in exaggerated forms, Sherman presents her ideas as new representations that attack and transcend universal stereotypes.

—Jennifer Jankauskas

Further Reading:

Cruz, Amanda, with contributions by Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Amelia Jones. Cindy Sherman: Retrospective. London, Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Fuku, Noriko. "A Woman of Parts." Art In America. June 1997,74-81, 125.

Krauss, Rosalind, with an essay by Norman Bryson. Cindy Sherman, 1975-1993. New York, Rizzoli, 1993.