Cindy Sherman represents everything that is wrong with the contemporary art world.
Considered a reigning matriarch of the “pictures generation” (the baby boomers who grew up in an era dominated by Pop art, Conceptualism, television and mass media), Sherman (born 1954) is a former painter who originally turned to photography for its relative ease, and to self-portraiture as a form of art therapy.
Extremely influential, she is credited with having elevated photography in the late 1970s to the level of painting -- of high art -- but in fact she has succeeded in combining the worst of both worlds.
Sherman, a campy surrealist mired in surfaces, appropriates the distortions of portrait painting without comprehending their metaphoric intent; and she reduces photography to mere documentation of her studio stagings, stripping the medium, as well as the genre of self-portraiture, of its mysteriousness -- its revelatory nature.
More than 170 of her theatrical photographs (almost all self-portraits and all “Untitled”) are the subject of a 35-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
In these elaborately staged and ironic mise-en-scenes, Sherman is an ageless, timeless, gender-bending chameleon with many guises.
Yet her focus is shallow, narrow -- predominantly stereotypes.
Sherman dresses up in makeup, costumes and retro-fashions. She incorporates props, prosthetics, sex dolls and masks. She photographs herself as the schoolgirl, aristocrat, frustrated housewife, film-noir heroine, biker chick, odalisque, demented clown and soap opera diva.
Or she appropriates historical figures such as Madame de Pompadour, or Renaissance and Baroque paintings and subjects such as an androgynous Caravaggio “Bacchus” and a 15th-century “Madonna and Child” -- with Sherman’s exposed fake breast aimed directly at the camera.
At MoMA, these “History Portraits” are hung salon-style on burgundy walls, as if at a national portrait gallery. A performer and provocateur, Sherman knows her audience. Yet she remains slippery, evasive. Pushing buttons, she blends the right mix of irony, sexual titillation, humor, kitsch, nostalgia and references from mass media and art history.
Every photograph provides clues and a payoff. In one image, a wide-eyed Sherman holds her glistening red tongue between her fingers, and towers over a group of tiny toy figurines, as if riffing on the “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”
In another, from a 1981 series in which she poses as clothed “Centerfold” models, she is the suburban every-girl of the era, lying alone at night, staring at the telephone.
Another photograph, from the 1992 series of “Sex Pictures,” is a Frankensteinian marriage of Hans Bellmer’s distorted body parts and Dr. Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu. Here, Sherman has fused at the waist a set of anatomically correct nude male and female medical torsos.
Decked out on satin sheets with abundant pubic hair and rolls of fat, the pair of stumped torsos looks real. The magic is in the details -- the gleaming penis ring and telltale tampon string.
And MoMA understands the power of Sherman’s spectacle. The show begins in the sixth-floor lobby, as if outside the Big Top, with her latest work, a giant wall mural depicting 18-foot-tall images of Sherman posing as a 19th-century circus juggler, Teutonic knights (clothed and nude) and a middle-aged, middleclass woman from the 1970s.
As in all of her self-portraits, the figures look down on us with vacuous, mocking stares that suggest that nothing, including Sherman’s art, should be taken very seriously.
Inside the galleries, the most compelling pictures are Sherman’s small, early black-and-white images from the fictional “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80). Adopting various personas, and posed dramatically and always alone, Sherman occupies streets, yards, pools, beaches and interiors.
The scenes feel so familiar that at first you cannot help trying to recall their films of origin. We feel as if we know these actresses and their locations, as well as their narratives, costars and directors.
But it is all a ruse. Even here, her characters lack depth and dimension. They cannot escape from their overbearing surfaces and artificialities. At MoMA, posturing passes for probity.
Ambiguity is mistaken for art. Revealing virtually nothing in her photographs, Sherman turns self-portraiture on its head.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)