Cindy Sherman at The Broad: Self as Subject Redefined
By Genie Davis
On view at The Broad Museum through October 2nd, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life may very well present images that could appear an homage to films, artworks, iconic Hollywood personas, and even clowns – but it is very much original. While she is her own subject, it is not “her” per se: self is an illusion.
From the two vast site-specific murals that greet viewers upon entrance to photographs that position the chimeric artist-as-subject in the foreground of incongruous Icelandic backgrounds, the cinematic scope of the exhibition is perhaps the overriding impression viewers take away. Of the 129 pieces on display here, most are from Broad’s own collection, with those large murals created specifically for the exhibition. Thus the exhibition allows a remarkably inclusive look at not just the work of this artist, but the fascination Broad the collector, and Broad the museum, has with the pointed, societal thrust of Sherman’s work. We are not looking at an idealized world here, but rather we are looking at a world in which ideals are embraced, and then skewered.
Provocative, self-reflective, emblematic of modern life and photography’s imprint upon it, Sherman’s works use rear-screen projection, studio settings, and digital landscapes to create her sometimes whimsical, often satiric representations. Changing roles, costumes, personas, Sherman is the subject of her own work, a kaleidoscopic series of inhabitations, in which the artist is thoroughly absorbed into the work and the character she portrays.
Sherman began her career as a painter, and she appropriates painterly style in each of her works, which are presented in series. She moves through reality and theatricality, spinning both on their heads, an early adapter to the idea of photography as art.
In the 80s, Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” series show the artist evoking poses and attired in clothing reminiscent of films from the 50s and 60s. Part of the subversive fun in studying these works is trying to decipher the inspiration – La Dolce Vita? 81/2? This is perhaps the gentlest and most accessible section of her earlier works.
Later in the exhibition, Sherman’s work turns to portrayals of classic film stars, depictions that are almost poignant as they show their age. Once again, there is no specific persona here, but rather composites that remind one of say Gloria Swanson or Marlene Dietrich. We also see Hollywood icons represented, some overly orange-tanned matriarchs who could’ve sired Donald Trump, others dignified, some frumpy.
Sherman appears to have an encyclopedic ability to portray everyone and everything, even clowns, with garish backgrounds and surreal faces. Her settings show war, the homes of the wealthy, disheveled twists on magazine covers, classical paintings, and centerfolds. The vastly inclusive exhibition covers the artist’s work from 1975 to the present, reaching deep into the artist’s psyche and that of the viewer.
One of the most striking aspects of the exhibition is the role that the chameleon-like Sherman plays in each of her works.
These are hardly traditional self-portraits, and are a far cry from self-referential selfie shots, too. Sherman inhabits other lives, with what appears an end goal of illuminating, or eviscerating, traditional stereotypes.
Make-up, wigs, costumes, prosthetics all play a part in making Sherman into everything from a starlet to a housewife to the focus of a Renaissance painting. We are looking at identity as art, of performance as subject. Some are caricatures, some are self-revelatory, some are reverential. Her most recent works tackle the subject of aging, and there is grace in many of these depictions, a grace in scant supply in works that take on the fashion industry and the cover girl aesthetic.
Overall, the exhibition fascinates, resonates, and heightens viewers’ sense of perception and the actor in all of us. All the world is definitely a stage, at least for Sherman.