Who is Cindy Sherman?

Writing a review of the new Cindy Sherman retrospective at MoMA proved to be surprisingly difficult. For a long time I wrestled with exactly what it was that I felt about this generally excellent exhibition. At the center of it was Miss Sherman. She features in every shot. And yet she is not really there. Seeing her show is a bit like attending a birthday party where the guest of honor is absent.

Sherman is merely the blank canvas on which the art is created. So in the absence of the artist, what about the work?

Looking at her complete ‘Untitled film stills’ it is hard to believe that she has created some of the most expensive photographs ever sold.

The series feels almost playful. There is that element of the little girl dressing up for the camera, acting out a fantasy for herself and the viewer. Yet at the same time there is also a sense of unease in many of the portraits, as if the women she depicts know they are being watched by some unseen voyeur. Or even worse, by people like us.

A lot has been made of the fact that Sherman is challenging the stereotypes of women created by the male art and film world. Though I can see this, her assertion that she wanted to make men feel ‘like violators’ in the face of some of her ‘Centerfold’ images, falls flat to me simply because men already know in viewing porn that they are exactly this. And it hasn’t stopped them looking at it since the dawn of creation.

Perhaps, and I struggle to articulate this, that is another feature of the work. It highlights the differences in the way men and women look at things. When I see some of her portraits of female characters, be it the aging ex-cheerleader or the society woman, I am aware that what I see and what a female viewer sees will be rather different. A woman will pick up small cues from dress and posture that I will miss. I will always be left with a feeling of not quite getting it. Like an outsider to a close knit groups in-joke.

Yet somehow this doesn’t matter and is even refreshing in a way. After all, if you don’t quite get it you are forced to think about why. And thinking is always good.

Perhaps too we are helped by the fact that there is something about Cindy Sherman’s work that is extremely accessible and ‘pop’. She plays a lot with existing stereotypes that many are already keenly aware of. Whether it’s old masters, as in the ‘History Portraits’ series, centerfolds or fashion iconography. So there is no need of a degree in film theory and fine art to understand what she is on about.

Then there’s the fact I touched on at the start of this piece, that the images always feature her. It’s almost as if we feel we are getting to know her and yet disconcertingly, like a person who offers friendship and then stands us up, she is strangely absent when we look closely.

We sometimes want to ask the question ’Will the real Cindy Sherman step forward?’

As has been said about her work, it’s almost as if she ‘disappears’ inside the images she creates; they are a mask for her to hide behind. In the same way that a rapper or a rock star create an alter ego that allows them to show themselves, while remaining unknowable.

Maybe it’s this mystery that keeps us hungry to see more of her work, in the vain hope that we will finally see the real Cindy.

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