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The Art of the Impersonator

Barbara and Richard S. Lane
Cindy Sherman: Untitled #74, 16 x 24 inches, 1980

The art that she made out of this feeling is, on some level, primitively direct in its appeal. Her pictures are probably alive for children in the same way they are for adults. Her photos remind us of thoughts that can gnaw on us when we are young and that perhaps never fully go away—thoughts such as “How much of my identity is really about my appearance?” or “What would it be like to be someone else?” or, more plaintively, “Can I become someone else?” It makes sense that Sherman fashioned a series of fairy-tale scenes, because in a way her entire endeavor is like a story for children. (It brought back to me Ozma of Oz, in which a character Dorothy meets, Princess Langwidere, has a new face for every day of the month, and keeps them at the ready, each in its own cabinet—rather like a Cindy Sherman show—in a special room.)

Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Cindy Sherman: Untitled #222, 60 x 44 inches, 1990

Sherman isn’t the first artist to come before the camera in a series of disguises or impersonations. Surely no artist, though, has used the notion as a premise for an entire career, and it creates for her audience a rare sense of intimacy with her and suspense about where she will go next. We seem to look at someone who has indentured her very person for the sake of her art. We can believe we are in this strange lifelong adventure with her, and, especially if we are her age or older, we wonder a little apprehensively how she will handle the issue of aging.

She has had the freedom all along to portray old people. One of her takeoffs of the old masters where real emotion breaks through is, it would seem, about the vulnerabilities of advancing years. It is a touching and harrowing picture in which we see a seated, vaguely distraught elderly person, perhaps from the time of the French Revolution, who is undressed from the waist up and has heavy, pendulous (prosthetic) breasts. When Sherman becomes old herself, however, she will be far less able to turn around and become a young person. Although she can alter her features digitally, as she has been doing recently in subtle ways, her options overall surely will narrow.

Because Sherman is in most of her photographs, and there is almost never anyone else in them, her art seems as well to have an unusual overall unity. This can be felt even though—or maybe because—she has moved over the years from one fairly self-contained series of work to another. We almost automatically assume that she is telling one long autobiographical story. Of course, most artists mature, or coast (or collapse), in full public view. But she gives the process an immediacy.

By the same token, Sherman has long been thought of, both by her admirers and by more skeptical viewers such as myself, as somehow separate from her contemporaries. But at the show I was struck by how much she shares with a number of them. When she first became known, the term Neo-Expressionism was heard a good deal. It was used, sometimes in a mocking way, to describe many of the new artists of the moment. Mostly painters and mostly men, they were seen as turning the clock back to a range of values and ideas whose time, many thought, was past. They made not only representational pictures but heroically large ones—canvases that, in Eric Fischl’s case, captured violent undercurrents of American suburban life, or, in David Salle’s art, braided together private moments with the seemingly random associations of one person’s flow of consciousness.

Private Collection
Cindy Sherman: Untitled #150, 49 1/2 x 66 3/4 inches, 1985

At the same moment, other emerging artists, many of them women—they included, besides Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Laurie Simmons—were viewed as an antidote to the painters. They seemed to be going in a more measured, analytical, and ironic direction. They made photographs but their concern was less photography as a fine art than awarenesses in the culture, particularly social attitudes that kept appearing in the media, that could be documented by or reenacted before the camera. Sherman’s early Untitled Film Stills, which for some viewers represented an almost objective report on the roles that women felt they had to play in a male-dominated world, were prime examples of this attitude toward photography.

At Sherman’s retrospective, though, one wonders if any of the so-called Neo-Expressionists—their number also includes Carroll Dunham, the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel—have been as consistently expressionistic in their work as she has. It is hard, in fact, to see how she is so different from them (or from certain other figures of the time, such as the late Mike Kelley, who were not primarily painters). She has been employing ever-larger formats; and she shares with many of the artists a profound rapport with movies, surely the most vital art form during the years when all of them were coming into their own. (Like Salle and Simmons, Sherman has directed a film, the 1997 Office Killer, with Molly Ringwald and Carol Kane, and Schnabel has directed a number of them.) And while her scenes of sexual violence are macabre to a degree that sets Sherman apart, it is worth noting that sexual imagery—even sexual imagery that like hers shades into a world of ghoulish doings—pervades the pictures of these artists.

Along with many of them, Sherman gives us an expressionism—to use this sweepingly large term for the moment—that is not easy to define. It is not, as were earlier kinds of expressionism, about embitterment, or the specter of death, or a quest to connect with the unconscious. Coming from artists who grew up, in the late 1950s and 1960s, in a time of great national wealth and self-assurance, it can present contemporary life as, rather, overbearing, even frightening, yet in down-to-earth and occasionally funny ways. My opinion is undoubtedly suspect, as I have been a rather distant admirer, but I believe that, especially in her work in these later years, Sherman does full justice to this complex note.

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