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A critique of society portraits an art work by cindy sherman

If you find yourself saying that, not just once but again and again and again, you are not alone. Nothing distinguishes Cindy Sherman's photography more than its familiarity. Her retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art, is like a homecoming for you and her alike. Just beware of who has welcomed you home.

Cindy Sherman: self-portraits of the artist as an everywoman

They are the people you knew and maybe turned away from. They are the people you never knew apart from maybe the style pages—the kind with wealth, access, and neuroses that only a successful artist would know.

They are the nights you tried to forget, after waking up amid the evidence. So what if Sherman made them all up and staged them? Memory, you know, is always a reconstruction.

Nor does the familiarity end there. More than a dozen large color photographs in her retrospective hang regularly in the Whitney or the Modern, which also owns the complete Untitled Film Stills.

Those seventy black-and-white photographs, from between 1977 and 1980, are still her most memorable images and an influence on Rita Lundqvist and so many others, and you truly will recognize more than a few. If this entire review seems halfway familiar, Sherman has kept demanding attention ever since. In gathering reviews of her solo shows since 1998 and " Fashioning Fiction ," at MoMA's short-lived Queens outpost in 2004, I found myself trying over and over to fashion a career survey—and then having to amend it.

If I end up repeating myself, interpretation is, after all, yet another kind of reconstruction. Naturally both have made it hard to disentangle popular culture and real events, and both have had people debating where appropriation ends and creativity begins.

  • MoMA welcomes and frustrates that impulse as well;
  • They are the people you knew and maybe turned away from.

Both also trade in glamour as well as horror— Andy Warhol with Jackie and the electric chairSherman with actual fashion photography and simulated film noir although her latest gallery show, in Chanel against simulated landscapes, comes off as little more than product placement.

Both Warhol and Sherman were self-effacing while creating a signature body of work, and both have had sophisticated critics questioning the very possibility of originality or authenticity.

And that brings up a third kind of familiarity, beyond the imagery and the art. If you think you have seen that woman in her photographs somewhere, you have—in the photograph just before.

Sherman is her one and only model, in work that puts her on both sides of the camera with you, the viewer, in between. Untitled Film Stills marked such a breakthrough in no small part because it introduced the theme of entrapment, long before James Franco tried to appropriate it.

Her subjects are repeatedly trapped by their fears, the roles they work so hard to maintain, and by things unseen, but one remembers them so vividly because the trap is not theirs alone.

Sherman's presence or absence has always had people debating, whereas not so very different work in the late 1970s by Francesca Woodman is ever so obviously autobiographical and still earlier self-portraits by Elisabeth Hase every so clearly false.

Eva Respini, who curated the show along with Lucy Gallun, opens her fine catalog essay with the debate. As she points out, "Time and time again, writers have asked, Who is the real Cindy Sherman?

It also goes too far. Respini describes the artist's choice as just "a matter of practicality," as if she could not at this point afford assistants now and again and indeed she has directed others on film. These subjects would not seem half as familiar or as changeable without her. They could not seem as approachable if one did not want to know her—or as inapproachable without her insistence on working alone.

They could not have one puzzling over gender roles if she were not playing with makeup and yet asserting her total control of the picture. They could not have one empathizing with older and older roles if she were not aging, and they would not have one frightened of aging and loneliness if she did not exaggerate her age.

They could not have one hunting through inhuman landscapes of insects and vomit except to look for her, and one could not make sense of her constant starting over with new and often repellent series if she were not trying to maintain her anonymity and escape.

They could not penetrate so deeply without the artist's peculiar obsessiveness, and, in Respini's words, "she addresses the anxieties of the status of the self" because she herself is on the line. Character and roles Respini traps herself only because, when it comes to Sherman, everyone does. No one can help it. She also has a point to make, right with her opening sentence: Then again, maybe not.

If everything else is at once familiar and unstable, why not genre? When Sherman posed for the cover of Art News in 1983, she sat with casual clothes, a shy but open smile, a staged photograph in the background, and studio lighting to each side.

She was there, but in a blond wig. She was revealing her methods but also making a work about them.

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It both was and was not a self-portrait. After all those paradoxes, maybe one had better start over, at the beginning. MoMA welcomes and frustrates that impulse as well. The retrospective proceeds more or less chronologically, but not quite. It also interrupts the flow for a few thematic asides, mostly on her working methods. If you find this presentation revealing but annoying, like magazine covers as "compromised media" for Robert HeineckenJoin the club.

It can seem arbitrary, with Society Portraits of wealthy older women turning up almost anywhere. It can seem like whitewashing, by dispersing or downplaying some of the most shocking and ugly work. At least one critic surely not I wished for more of the Clowns and the 1980s, with Sherman not so much disguised as half buried in prosthetic flesh and precious bodily fluids. On the other hand, the show complements nicely her recent exhibitions, and it has every reason to act accessible.

Almost every critic has described giving up on her as she becomes more outrageous and artificial, only to find her essential once and for all—even if they can never agree on when.

The show also gets to begin revealingly, apart from a 2010 mural outside of gender-bending medieval roles. The opening room supplies a bit of an overview.

After her head on the ground at her most beautiful, but dead as a statue and covered with something like flies, it will get harder to dismiss the ugliness.

After a society matron presiding over a villa that sure looks like the Cloisters, it will get harder to dismiss that series as beyond an ordinary New Yorker's experience.

However, the room also includes the earliest photographs, before her series. They look like snapshots laid out on a single sheet, as she moves in and out of reserved adulthood and childish funny faces. A later room has more early work, in clustered cutouts of herself and a stop-action video. She moves not quite freely until a hand reaches in to adjust her like a doll. Already one sees her dressing up but also refusing to dress up. Even as a girl out on Long Island, she played with makeup, but at times to strive for not a gorgeous young adult but an older woman.

One also sees her fascination with self-portraiture but also re-creation. Actors talk of moving in and out of character, when they mean in and out of roles, and Sherman makes it hard to distinguish character from roles. From publicity stills to fine art Next come the film stills, modeled after publicity stills from the 1940s and 1950s, but eerily like scenes from actual films.

People describe them as alternately demure, sexy, vulnerable, scared, and daring, but it makes more sense to see all of them as all of the above.

One remembers the girl reaching for a book so that her breasts stand out, on shelves stocked with film history. Sherman also shows her ability to transform not just herself but everything around her. A dark street becomes a film set, a ventilation tower becomes a castle or monument, a simple railing becomes a terrifying obstacle, battered walls become ridden by bullet holes, and a bed becomes a crime scene.

At the same time, she starts her practice of breaking the spell, by leaving things lying about as if by accident. She never again ventures outside her studio, with the only backgrounds now added from a neutral screen, digital manipulation, or her own creation. Of course, this only brings her closer to Hollywood and TV. There again she enacts anxieties as much as temptations, and there again the alternative roles in series can seem instead the fluid movement of a single actor.

As one turns one's head, she could be writhing like the dancers in an early Robert Longoa classmate at art school in Buffalo and a boyfriend who himself was borrowing from a film. Not just the construction of gender places her with the " Pictures generation.

  1. Sherman's presence or absence has always had people debating, whereas not so very different work in the late 1970s by Francesca Woodman is ever so obviously autobiographical and still earlier self-portraits by Elisabeth Hase every so clearly false.
  2. Cindy Sherman has been to that edge and doubled back and her work of the past decade demonstrates a sense of enlightenment.
  3. Larger text size Very large text size Some leading artists come across as would-be pop stars or super salesmen.
  4. Her breakthrough series was the Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980, in which she posed as imaginary female characters from old black-and-white movies, from Hollywood film noir to Italian neorealism. Her society portraits are masterpieces of characterisation, showing women who are wealthy but not necessarily happy.

Like Diane Arbusshe worked for fashion magazines and shows the strangeness of Manhattan streets, but without the freakishness. Like Bruce Nauman or Hannah Wilke, she performs boldly while abusing herself, but in character and in fear. Like Sherrie Levine and Laurie Simmonsshe questions male assumptions about women, but with herself on the line. Still, she is always fighting back. She has marveled that people keep remembering those movies she made up, and she seems to spend the 1980s doing her best to disabuse them.

The growing exaggeration is part of that, and so is the way that each series starts over—or is it? Maybe posing as a woman, she seems to say, is always about re-creation. The nasty series do not quite remove the temptations either. One can take comfort in finding her lying at the very top of the frame or merely reflected in sunglasses.

In the same way, she inflates, mocks, and embraces her growing status in fine art. The History Portraitsdisplayed all over four walls Salon style, put her through the paces of painting since the High Renaissance, with a certain fondness for Madonnas and whores along with the dubious moral rigor of Savonarola in profile. Just to confuse you further, you actually may remember one or two, like the pose after Caravaggio's.