There’s an awful lot of Cindy Sherman at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Aside from the works the museum has in its permanent collection (though not currently on display), there is Sherman’s retrospective fresh from the MoMA in New York. Then there’s the fact that there is so much of Cindy Sherman in the retrospective itself. Nearly all of the images feature her as the sole or primary subject. Indeed, in general terms, Cindy Sherman is a highly visible artist — this show being her third major retrospective in the United States since 1987. One could be forgiven for thinking they were over familiar with her and that, I suppose, is partly the point.
Since the series, “Untitled Film Stills” catapulted her to fame in the 1980s, Cindy Sherman has been unashamedly front and center in her art. While exploring themes as diverse as femininity, perception, history and art itself, the crux of Sherman’s endurance as an artist is her bemusing and somewhat paradoxical ability to be both a primary character in her artwork, while also using her gifts of impersonation to be endlessly malleable as both artist and subject. At times, it’s impossible to say whether she is a highly visible artist or a deeply hidden one, vanishing beneath layers of make up and her large, oblique compositions It’s a theme echoed in the names she gives, or rather withholds from her artwork: they are all “Untitled” followed by a plain gallery number.
There is a tension in this retrospective between Sherman the artist and Sherman the mime. Sanford Schwartz of the New York Review of Books said of the New York retrospective that he had originally thought Sherman the artist to be “at the beck and call” of Sherman the mime. In a medium so effortlessly mimetic as photography — and with the advent of Photoshop, so hyper-realistically anti-mimetic also — the subject’s artistry is equally important as that of the artist. Sherman draws attention to this fact by being both simultaneously.
She gently plays with this idea in her 1980s series of history portraits, one of the few instances she directly quotes from real sources. In these, she usually relies on nondescript approximations of places that hint at films or popular culture without completely representing them.
In this series, amongst the usual familiar-yet-alien images, Sherman postures herself as figures from paintings of old masters — Ingres, Raphael and, most memorably, Caravaggio. Her Caravaggio is a parody of his “Self-portrait as Bacchus”. This is a loaded image. As a woman, she has inserted herself into a sort of patriarchal artistic chain of being. She is a woman impersonating a man impersonating a deity. She has consistently denied any theoretical feminist subtext to her works, insisting that she is mainly a proponent of the visceral approach to feminism. Looking at her faux-Caravaggio, brilliantly hung against an ochre backdrop in the stacked form of a classic Renaissance gallery, it’s impossible not to agree with her.
The exhibition is curated in a roughly chronological fashion. There are certain exceptions like the a monumental picture (in reality a triptych of canvases) from 2011 that is arranged alongside Sherman’s first foray into wide format photography, her “Centerfolds” series. It’s a provocative arrangement in an exhibition that mainly plays it safe with its arrangement. Sherman’s darker, more shocking work is alluded to in a room with her 1980s gore pictures (though small in number, they are large in format as well as impact).
Aside from the ideas that span the exhibition, there are some truly impressive individual works. “Untitled 43” from 1979 is a brilliant evocation of the entire “Film Stills” series pitting Sherman, alone against the backdrop of Monument Valley. The dislocation between subject and backdrop almost echoes that between subject and artist and is something Sherman returns to time and time again.
No one needs to be reminded that this is an important show. The posters advertising it cover nearly every street Market to Telegraph. Sherman has won that rare almost universal acclaim from the art world that can be a double-edged sword, one that blunts the sharp and subversive wit that shot her to fame. For all her ubiquity inside and outside the gallery, Cindy Sherman is greatly deserving; standing in front of her monumental portraits, or surrounded by all 69 of her “Film Stills,” one experiences the draw of her enigmatic photographic and performance skills that keep audiences coming back to the gallery time and time again.
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