untitled, black and white photograph
Cindy Shermans new photographs of mutilated plastic dolls are
extraordinary. The show consists of 15 black-and-white images of hybridized
dolls involved in macabre and oftentimes violently sexual pantomimes.
The scenes take place on a shallow stage of drapery, and are photographed
in low contrast matte grays and washed-out refracted light. Unlike
Laurie Simmons photographs of passive dolls where
legs morph into various apparati (eg, guns, cameras), Shermans
dolls have been ripped apart and mis-assembled in absurd configurations.
For example, in one photograph, an old mans head is not-quite
attached to a dolls body with skinny Barbie legs, adolescent
breasts, stunted arms, and a gigantic, slashed up dick; while, in
another, miniature Barbie legs are crudely attached to a Hercules
torso with tattooed Tom of Finland arms, and nail-polished fingers.
Indeed, many of the bodies are multi-sexed (with two vaginas,
for instance) or transgendered. One photograph features a bearded,
anatomically female doll (whose vagina is where her belly-button
should be) back-bending itself towards a leg-less partner who sports
a mechanical penis.
All of the dolls bodies are deformed and mutilated by slashings
and gougings. In Shermans 92 exhibition of raunchy mannequins,
the life-size dolls (acquired from a medical-supplies house) were
already truncated and fragmented; whereas, in this series, Sherman
herself has hacked apart the bodies, singed them with fire, gouged
out eyes and mouths, punctured plastic to make vaginas,
spliced penises in half, and marred legs with knifes. And, yet, the
images are not violent. We are thwarted from taking these images too
seriously because we are always aware when looking at these photographs
that these are faux vignettes of teeny-weeny Mattel dolls performing
S&M acts. We are also deterred from reading these images too literally
because Sherman has highlighted the constructed-ness of each scene:
The dolls are placed on silly-looking bed-sheets or spreads, and are
clumsily glued togetherviscous, shiny glue-gun remnants are
ubiquitous throughout the series. Photographed in close-up, the effect
of these make-shift dolls is ludicrousand cartoony.
For instance, in one image, an Igor-like figure pushes a wheel-chair
carrying marred dolls legs, with a fallen, decapitated head
at its wheels. In another, a high-chaired, Fernand Leger-like child
fist-fucks an adult female figure whose breasts have been sawed off.
In yet another, a decapitated female doll with quasi-severed clay
breasts and an oozing neck is fucked by another female
doll with muscular arms; the one on top grins in delight,
her semi-decapitated head deformed via lacerations and burns.
With this new series of photographs, Sherman has shown how she can
continually succeed in complicating libidinal desire. Vis-a-vis her
recourse to the abject and to the black-and-white format, and vis-á-vis
her emphasis on the fabrication of the image, she de-sensualizes and
de-sexualizes her source material. For example, in one image, a Barbie
lays on her back, her legs raised and splayed revealing her two vaginas
(which have been burned into her plastic body, since, as we all know,
Barbie does not have genitals); she has gigantic, malformed breasts,
and her happy face is mutilated by several knife slashings;
her right leg is not-quite attached at the joint, excreting a gooey
fluid. In Shermans hands, Barbie has been transformed into a
monstrous, anti-beauty. This is a far cry from the seductive, come-hither
playgirl featured in the Untitled Film Stills.
In her elaborate Structuralist analysis of S&M porn, Sherman has
created deliberately schlocky, purposely crude imagery which thwarts
the traditional scopophilic dialogue. By badly parodying her source
material, Sherman forces the viewer to see these scenarios as make-believeprecluding
the suspension of disbelief. She tears apart the pornographic text,
and disperses its flow. In so doing, she de-naturalizes and debunks
With these nasty new photographs, Sherman has shown how, after a hiatus
of nearly four years, she can return to the art scene with a bang.
New York, New York