FOR CINDY SHERMAN
She has disguised and photographed herself as over 400 different characters, from kooky starlets to lactating Madonnas. On the eve of her first Scottish solo exhibition,
we go in search of the artist beneath the mask. Words: Kate Tregaskis
indy Sherman likes dressing up. She has done since
she was a child. Rather than princesses — or whatever
else well brought up little girls in the early ()(Is in New Jersey normally dressed up as — she favoured old ladies or monsters. Forty years on she has added hundreds more characters to her arsenal and has become one of the most prominent female artists not only of the 20th century. but possibly ever. She has had over 75 solo and I5() group shows in major cities across the globe and her work changes hands for tens of thousands of dollars. Not bad for someone who. as well as being alive and female (both still unusual in an artist so feted). failed the introductory photography course at college.
Born in 195-1. Sherman grew up in suburban Long Island and attended the State Ifniversity (‘ollege at Buffalo. New York. She originally studied painting. producing self-portraits and realist copies of images from magazines. A photography tutor (not the one who failed her) introduced her to conceptual art. At the same time she was continuing her passion for dressing up by amassing a collection of clothes. wigs and other accessories. She used these to create different characters. turning up at one gallery opening dressed as a pregnant woman. She was encouraged to photograph these characters and. over 4()() images later. that is what she is still doing. Sherman came to prominence in the late 70s with a series
of black and white photographs called l7ntitled l‘ilm Stills. in which she cast herself as fictional B-movie heroines.
Iler isolated characters enact various film stereotypes
so convincingly that. although she made them up. people have told her that they remember the movie
that she has copied them from. Subsequent series of
generated by the media. She has inhabits what seems like an infinite number of these stereotypes. picking them off one by one like a sniper. In her early work the cable release that she used to press the camera shutter remoter is left visible -—- making it clear that she is both the artist and model ~ just in case we had any doubt about who is in control here.
In the 80s and early ()(ls much was written about her feminist credentials. Now that the work has become widely lauded. has it lost its ability to subvert‘.’ Ilas it been regurgitated by the media machine it apparently sought to expose‘.’ And now that feminism seems to be as unfashionable as fondue parties. has the meaning of her work changed'.’
In the catalogue that accompanies the show there are reprtxluctions from a make-do photography album. The album has ‘A (‘indy Book' written on the cover. and Sherman began compiling it when she was ten. The photographs are like anyone else‘s snaps: (‘indy with another child on the porch: at her gr‘anny‘s: her school class: (‘indy as a geeky adolescent: a fresh- faced studio portrait . . . What makes the album different is that under each and ever photograph she has written: ‘That‘s me‘: ‘That‘s me’: ‘That's me‘ — as if there was some doubt that the images are actually of her. The album gives the impression of someone who is not simply identifying herself in the photographs. but of someone who is actively looking for herself there. It‘s a pity that this album is not in the exhibition as it
offers a poignant. more personal take on a preoccupation that to some degree most of us share. To coincide with the exhibition the (‘ameo cinema in Iidinburgh is showing ()[i'iee Killer. a feature film directed by Sherman. It tells the tale of
works include (‘entrefolds (which play with pictorial one mousey woman‘s revenge on her employees by devices used in soft porn): Iiashion (she dressed in systematically bumping offother characters and then clothes by (iaultier. (‘omme des (‘rareons and others A attempting to dispose of the bodies. It has been for spreads in Interview. Vogue and Harpers Bazaar): described as a ’dclirious pastiche. hilarious comedy liairy Tales: Disasters: Ilistory Portraits: Sex and creepy horror all in one‘. It provides another
Pictures: a series of what looks like unhinged refreshing perspective on Sherman‘s photographs.
suburban housewives. and most recently. Clowns. The exhibition coming to the Scottish National (iallery of Modern Art in lidinburgh contains less
then 20% of her output. It is not strictly a retrospective: much of the darker. more grotesque
work. such as the l‘airy Tales. the Disasters and the Sex Pictures. have been left out. What we are presented with is a slightly sanitised perspective on Sherman's oeuvre. Nonetheless its strong stuff and the exhibition provides an important opportunity to see her work en rnasse.
As the different series build. it is as if Sherman turns up the volume. The early works are subtle and her disguises are seamless. With the Old Masters she makes no attempt to hide the fact that she is using prosthetics. By the time you reach the society wives. with their Ililary (‘Iinton faces and their botox smiles. they look distinctly ravaged. In the most recent series. the clowns are cerin just the same as the society wives. but more so: a psychedelic collision of psychotic good cheer and mortification giving us the impression of being able to see both the mask and behind the mask at the same time. What started out as being rather glamorous — dressing up like film stars 7 seems somewhere along the line to have gone horribly wrong.
Sherman's work has been read as a successful attempt to expose and explode stereotypical representations of women which have been handed down over time through culture or
14 THE LIST 2/ No. 1'. Der; 20015
suggesting that there is more humour in her work than she is generally credited with. ()ﬂiee Killer had its l'K premiere in l‘)‘)7 at the Iidinburgh International Iiilm Festival. and Sherman came to a Q&A session after the screening . As I remember it. little fuss was made about her in the programme — she was simply billed as a first time director. At the time I wondered if there was more than one (‘indy Sherman. They couldn‘t mean Tllli (‘indy Sherman. After the filth. when a number of the audience left — not hanging around to hear her talk — I was sure I‘d made a mistake. That wouldn’t happen if it was the Rl-IAI. (‘indy Sherman. And then there she was. out on stage. blinking in the lights. Diminutive. uncannin familiar. she looked somehow muted like a doll that has had its features rubbed away from extreme use. As we left. she was leaving too. We passed her on I.othian Road. It was like seeing something we shouldn’t have: after all her elaborate disguises she might as well have been naked. I felt like pinching her to see if she was real.
The Cindy Sherman exhibition is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh from Sat 6 Dec-Sun 7 Mar 2004. £4.00 (£3.00). Office Killer (1997) is at the Cameo cinema, Edinburgh on Sat 6 Dec, 6.30pm. 0131 228 4141.