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"Retrospective," untitled #137

Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art promoted this show on the radio as "required viewing." Banners featuring images of Sherman's work hung from streetlights around downtown. And in the wall text that greeted viewers at the entrance to the exhibition, the museum called Sherman one of the most important artists of the late twentieth century. I must confess, however, that I do not understand what all the fuss is about.

The exhibition, like Sherman's career, begins well. Near the front hangs "Untitled A-E," a set of five black-and-white photographs executed by the artist while still a student in ë75. They are self-portraits in which small changes in facial expressions, clothing, or makeup allow Sherman to assume different personas like an adolescent boy, a clown, and a young girl. These casual photos call to mind a young person playing dress-up and making faces in the mirror. Their simple, straight-on, head-and-shoulders composition underscores the innocence of that activity.

Sherman retains the black-and-white format for the "Untitled Film Stills", a series of sixty-nine photos that resemble the publicity stills created to market movies. In these photographs, which are more complex than "Untitled A-E", Sherman wears a vast wardrobeóincluding office attire, robes, kerchiefs, wigs, underwear, aprons, and much moreóto create a large cast of female characters.

The viewers' challenge is to decipher who these women are and what is happening in each scene. There are no titles to guide us, so we have to identify these women based solely upon what they look like. Doing so is not difficult, because many of the characters resemble specific female types portrayed in the movies. For example, because the woman in untitled film still #7 wears only a slip and stockings, carries a martini glass, and appears to stumble through a doorway, we assume, like Amada Cruz in her catalog essay, that this is "a floozy." We suspect she is drunk and screaming at her lover from the door of their motel room. But, of course, we could be wrong, and there could be a much less sordid explanation.

Viewers' experience with the "Untitled Film Stills" simulates the everyday judgments that are made of women based solely on their looks. And because these photographs refer to the marketing of the film industry, they raise issues about mass media's sale of identities to women. If a woman buys the black negligee that some beautiful actress wears in a film or a model wears in a Victoria's Secret catalog, she too can be a sultry seductress (like the character in untitled film still #14). But if she wears frumpy clothes and no makeup, and if her hair isn't perfect, no man will want her, just as the unseen lover of untitled film still #7 no longer wants the floozy.

It is remarkable that Sherman was able to create such an effective series of photos on what appears to be a relatively low budget. Indeed, the restrictions imposed by the low budget contribute to the effectiveness of the "Untitled Film Stills". The prints' small scale (about 8" x 10") and lack of color require viewers to look at the photos up close in order to have any sense of what is going on in the pictures, and as we examine them closely, we are inclined to project onto the photos our notions about different types of female images.

Unlike many of the characters in the "Untitled Film Stills", the characters Sherman portrays in her "Centerfolds" series cannot be easily categorized by sight. But once we know the title of the series, it is easy to understand what they are: the antitheses of porno magazine models. The women are not particularly attractive, and all wear unerotic clothing that covers their genitals and breasts. In fact, none of them shows much skin. And rather than appearing to enjoy the photo sessions, these women are aloof to, frightened by, or worn out by the camera that looks down at them.

The "Centerfolds" thus directly criticize one mass-media genre by subverting its conventions, and thereby manipulate viewers. The obvious point of these photos is to make us angry about the way pornographic magazines exploit women. In contrast, because the "Untitled Film Stills" merely imitate the conventions of a media genre, they do not attempt to direct our responses to them. How viewers react to the stills depends on personal experience with the genreómoviesóand on how they personally feel about the female types presented in films and in Sherman's imitations of this genre.

In addition, because the photos of the "Centerfolds" series are so large (the women are almost life size) and in color, the dynamics of viewing them are different from looking at the "Untitled Film Stills". We do not need to look up close at the "Centerfolds" to understand what is going on. These photos exert themselves on us, and, as a result, they, along with the titles, thwart any inclination to project our own ideas onto the pictures.

The shift in format and approach that differentiates the "Centerfolds" from the "Untitled Film Stills" is unfortunately, continued in later series. The "Fashion" series, like the "Centerfolds", was inspired by a magazine commission. Again, Sherman presents in these photos the antithesis of a mass-media genre. This time the genre is a fashion spread. Like the Centerfolds, these are large color photos. And just like the "Centerfolds", the Fashion photos present us with plain rather than beautiful women. In spite of the expensive clothes they wear, these women are not glamorous. Instead, they look silly (untitled #119), deranged (untitled #122), homicidal (untitled #138), or wrinkled (untitled #132). As Amada Cruz notes, the purpose of this series is to "undermine the desirability of [typical fashion] images by emphasizing their contrived nature." However, these photos are like one-line jokes: They are funny for a moment or two, but the effect is short-lived.

The one-line jokes continue in Sherman's "History Portraits," a series of photos in which she masquerades as both men and women in mock portraits. With Sherman wearing wigs, fake eyebrows, clumsily attached nose prosthetics, and obviously fake breasts (in one instance projecting some liquid), the characters of the "History Portraits" look ridiculous. The obvious point of these photos is to mock the conventions of this genre from art history in which the subjects often appear wealthy, serious, and elegant.

The "History Portraits" and most of Sherman's other work directly link her to her childhood. In a BBC program shown at the exhibition, she mentions that, as a girl, she liked to play dress-up. One way of viewing Sherman's career, then, could be to consider it as a series of attempts to recreate the fascination that self-transformation provided her when she was young. Sometimes these efforts, such as the "Untitled Film Stills", are absorbing for viewers. Often, however, they aren't, and instead seem like exercises in self-indulgence.

The photos that seem the most self-indulgent of the entire exhibition are from Sherman's "Sex Pictures" and "Disasters" series. In these pictures, Sherman seems to revel in vulgarity. Wart-covered buttocks, a drooling and deformed face, vomit, mutant clowns, a flaccid pink penis, a torso with male and female genitalia, and other grotesqueries are on huge, full-color display. In her notebook, Sherman writes that she does not want the "Sex Pictures" to "be merely about sex per se as shock element." But the shock-value of the "Sex Pictures" and some of the "Disasters" series overwhelms any other intentions Sherman might have for these photos.

Nonetheless, these pictures are saved from a purely adolescent sensibility by the technical skill with which Sherman has executed them. In terms of color, composition, and lighting, the "Sex Pictures" and "Disasters" series are some of the most accomplished photos in the exhibition. And in some cases, Sherman's intentions and skill work together to produce truly poignant images. For example, in untitled #168 from the "Disasters" series, a woman's business suit lies on sand surrounded by computer components and bathed in a blue light from the monitors. The machinery stands vigil around this clothing that is now as obsolete as the suit's former owner whom the computer has replaced.

If many more of Sherman's photos were as effective as untitled #168 or the "Untitled Film Stills", I might agree with the accolades expressed in the MCA's marketing of this exhibition. In a print ad the museum says, "First, she transformed herself. Ultimately, she changed the art world." Certainly, Cindy Sherman has greatly influenced both artists and critics. But how much for the better?


John Judge

Chicago, Illinois