On Cindy Sherman's Pleasure Island

Cindy Sherman photomural at MOMACindy Sherman, Untitled (2010). Installation view at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. © 2012 Cindy Sherman.

loor to ceiling murals of Cindy Sherman dressed in nonsensical quasi-historic garb greet visitors to the retrospective of her work currently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The murals’ proud characters, impossible to categorize, seem detached from any particular reality, but it’s exciting to see Sherman’s familiar face writ large. Somehow, being in a room with 8-foot Shermans feels like being in the right place at the right time in art history.

Sherman’s photos are undeniably enticing—they carry the allure of the familiar. The quality of her photography, in whatever phase, is exquisite, and since she is the model for every character in her photographs, she forms a unique relationship with viewers, who learn to interpret various levels of artifice in her work. Because viewers must sift through layers of costume, makeup, and props to find meaning, the photos can evoke waves of attraction and repulsion several times in one viewing.

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film StillCindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #56. 1980. Gelatin silver print, 6 3/8 x 9 7/16" (16.2 x 24 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd © 2012 Cindy Sherman.

The layered quality of familiarity and artifice is established in her very early works, and continues through the show. The Untitled Film Stills beckon with the ominous beauty of young love. The female characters in the Centerfold photos of 1981 are reclined, expectant, and photographed in supple color, but many of the images whisper of imminent doom. Sherman’s “fashion” shots feel at first like an inside joke, but what initially seems amusing—women decayed or insane, photographed Vogue-style—quickly becomes alarming.

Cindy Sherman "fashion" shotCindy Sherman. Untitled #119. 1983. Chromogenic color print, 48 1/2 x 7' 10" (115.6 x 238.8 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman.

Following the trajectory of Sherman’s style from room to room feels like Pinocchio’s journey through Pleasure Island. A heightening sense of disorientation and horror escalates in the disaster and sex series, where Sherman removes herself as the central figure in favor of artificial body fluids and prosthetic limbs, absurdly posed. Glittery and sparkling, these photos have the look of a present under the tree, but are actually designed to titillate and then disgust. Sherman’s history photos reinstate the artist into her work, and provide some respite from the demanding quality of the non-figurative work. We can laugh at the prosthetic nursing nipples and falling-off wigs, but the crossed eyes of the inbred nobility urge us to question the judgment of this historical one percent, and absurdity and garishness mount in the ensuing phases of portraiture. Sherman’s clown portraits use masks and makeup to intensify rather than hide emotion, and similarly, her catastrophic prom queens radiate with garish color and aggression.

Cindy ShermanIn her West Coast/East Coast headshots, Sherman examines the aging woman’s use of makeup as a tool for preserving beauty. Earnest shows of delicious lips, lush lashes, rosy cheeks, and ample cleavage become obscene, the makeup serving only to intensify desperation. These shots are juxtaposed with the 2008 society photos of McMansion nobility and accomplished mavens. The pride in these women is overshadowed by their plastic surgery marks and the misery in their eyes. The loony mural figures dressed like Renaissance Fair rejects at the exhibit's entry, devoid of makeup and set against a quasi-natural landscape, look less crazy, in retrospect, than the women using extreme artifice to fit social conventions.

Sherman’s work is undeniably demanding. It is enticing, repulsive, funny, and horrible, but also, it is democratic. No one escapes her scrutiny, and at some point during the exhibition, most visitors will feel trapped beneath her garish spotlight. Yet her intense involvement in the work connects her with her characters and audience alike. Sherman and her viewers share the art, and through the equality established by this sharing, cynicism dissolves and self-righteousness feels impossible.  

Art this careful doesn’t come around often—Sherman’s commitment to her vision and to her audience is rare. A word of warning, though: when you exit the museum, prepare to be affronted by every face you see. —Rachel Greben

Cindy Sherman clownsCindy Sherman. Untitled #425. 2004. Chromogenic color print, 70 3/4" x 7' 5 3/4" (179.7 x 228 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Rachel Greben is a writer and arts education consultant. In the winter issue, she wrote about Pam Houston's Contents May Have Shifted.