The first major Australian solo exhibition in more than 15 years by renowned New York artist Cindy Sherman will open at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) on 28 May.
New Jersey-born Cindy Sherman has an extensive exhibition history spanning institutions including The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012) and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012). Across her career Sherman has produced an astonishing number of character studies, experimenting with costume, prosthetics, makeup and digital photography to embellish and manipulate photographs in which she enacts her subjects in highly constructed images. Ellie Buttrose, QAGOMA’s Associate Curator of Contemporary International Art, tells us more about one of the most influential artists of the last half-century.
TGW: What aspects of Cindy Sherman’s work have changed the most over the past 15 years, particularly during her transition to digital photography and since last shown in Australia?
EB: In Untitled #408 and #409 2002 from the ‘head shots’ series, Sherman inserts a glowing light source behind the characters, enhancing the sense of manufactured glamour, marking the artist’s first foray into a digital technology. Sherman further explored the possibility of digital backgrounds to expand the mood that is hinted at in the character’s expression and stance in the ‘clown’ series with day-glo sopping backgrounds. Backgrounds become another prop in Sherman’s arsenal, this is most apparent in the ‘society portrait’ series where they add to a sense of opulence alongside the lavish clothes and jewellery.
Using digital technologies has also allowed Sherman to incorporate multiple characters into a single photograph. It is quite an uncanny experience being in a gallery of works that each contain the artist, and this effect is dramatically heightened by works from the ‘clown’ and ‘Balenciaga’ series in which the artist inhabits multiple characters within a single image. Shooting on digital film has allowed Sherman to work at a scale previously unrealisable; the ‘mural’ series looms large over exhibition viewers at five metres tall.
‘It is quite an uncanny experience being in a gallery of works that each contain the artist.’
TGW: Why do you think Sherman’s socially critical photography – in particular her iconic portrayal of social female roles – is still as relevant today as it was 30 years ago?
EB: Since 2000, after using mannequins, dolls and props in her work for many years, Sherman returned as the central model in her photographs. Sherman notes that her works are portrayals of characters that we come into contact with in our daily lives and through the mass media – not self-portraits. Sherman’s works continue to be relevant today because they reflect contemporary concerns. For example, Hollywood continues to be a dominant force in the production of images of women, and there has been much recent discussion about the roles available for older women – including Meryl Streep making a significant contribution to the Writers Lab for female scriptwriters over 40 with the hope that this may result in more complex roles for female characters on screen. Baby boomers are the largest demographic within the United States and Australia, and Sherman’s recent photographs deftly reflect the relationship between the representation of women and and ageing in contemporary society.
‘Sherman notes that her works are portrayals of characters that we come into contact with in our daily lives and through the mass media – not self-portraits.’
TGW: Why do you think that throughout her career, Sherman’s work has often been described as ‘confronting’?
EB: Cindy Sherman’s work is the result of close observation of ordinary things and the day-to-day decisions making up our lives. By drawing attention to the choices we make – for instance, when putting together an outfit we hope will express our chosen self – Sherman highlights the fact that we are constantly making judgments. Throughout the artist’s career, Sherman has addressed the conditioning of white women’s roles in advanced capitalist societies, and the continuing popularity of these artworks is based on shared female experiences.
‘Rather than assuming a position of superiority to the roles she plays, she [Sherman] enables audiences to identify with a make-up mishap or fashion faux pas. We don’t laugh at her characters but instead empathise with them through our own experience of falling victim to social conditioning.’
These works bring such follies to the fore, and we are confronted with the question of whether to resist that conditioning.
TGW: How has the way in which females construct their identities – based on the aspirational consumerism and social media of today – changed over the past 15 years and how does this influence Sherman’s practice?
EB: Sherman is part of a generation who came of age at a time when English translations of texts by French philosophers such as Michel Focault, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, who argued that identity was socially constructed, became widely available. Sherman’s career has worked in parallel with the general public’s wider engagements of these ideas. Sherman’s photographs acknowledge the labour that goes into the construction of a ‘look’. In Untitled #400 2000, unblended white powder around the eye catches the light, the one-shoulder dress reveals a strip of untanned skin: the very items that were intended to help this hopeful beauty look more natural – her foundation, her tan – are revealed as props in a costume. In the same way that Sherman’s ‘head shots’ expose the delusion involved in the transformational power of make-up, works such as Untitled #512 2010-11 reveal that the same hopes and vulnerabilities have simply been transferred to the realm of cosmetic surgery. The visibility of the way we construct our identity (regardless of how you identify) has become more noticeable due to the speed of distribution of imagery, and also in the shift in interest to the ‘in process’ shots not just the ‘final image’ – for example the huge reaction to Kim Kardashian posting an image of herself contouring foundation on Instagram.
‘By posing as her own subject, she [Sherman] is able to enter the characters and explore the humour behind exaggerated stereotypes.’
Art Director at QAGOMA, Chris Saines, says that in addition to six important photographic series produced by the artist since 2000, this exhibition will feature an entirely new body of work created this year and shown for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere. Saines says,
‘Consistently featuring in major exhibitions and collections around the world and working alongside prominent fashion houses, Cindy Sherman’s practice is both broad and ambitious, and continues to challenge and transform our understanding of photography and the phenomenon of contemporary portraiture.’
The exhibition includes more than 50 large-scale works drawn from public and private collections – such as the much written about series ‘head shots’ 2000-02 and the darker ‘clowns’ series (at top) from 2003–04, made in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA.
Also featured are Sherman’s ‘society portraits’ from 2008, an immense mural whose 5 metre-tall cast of characters loom large over gallery visitors, and two subversive fashion house collaborations, the Vogue-commissioned ‘Balenciaga’ 2007–08, and ‘Chanel’ 2010–2013 in which the artist mines the fashion house’s haute couture archives. This stage of her career also coincides with Sherman’s embrace of digital technologies, allowing her to create elaborate backgrounds, work at a more imposing scale and return as a subject in her own art, rather than remaining behind the camera.
An extensive suite of public programs, including an Up Late series and GOMA Talks will accompany the exhibition. Full program details will be released soon. The Cindy Sherman Exhibition opens at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) on 28 May.
For tickets and further information please visit the QAGOMA website.
The exhibition will then travel onwards to City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand from November 2016 to February 2017.