Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cindy Sherman

Pictures at an exhibition

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Silhouette by Kara Walker

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What piece of art has actually stopped you in your tracks?”

“All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously said, but these days, it seems more accurate to say that all art aspires toward the condition of advertising. There’s always been a dialogue between the two, of course, and it runs in both directions, with commercials and print ads picking up on advances in the fine arts, even as artists begin to utilize techniques initially developed on Madison Avenue. Advertising is a particularly ruthless medium—you have only a few seconds to grab the viewer’s attention—and the combination of quick turnover, rapid feedback, and intense financial pressure allows innovations to be adapted and refined with blinding speed, at least within a certain narrow range. (There’s a real sense in which the hard lessons that Jim Henson, say, learned while shooting commercials for Wilkins Coffee are what made Sesame Street so successful.) The difference today is that the push for virality—the need to attract eyeballs in brutal competition with countless potential diversions—has superseded all other considerations, including the ability to grow and maintain an audience. When thousands of “content providers” are fighting for our time on equal terms, there’s no particular reason to remain loyal to any one of them. Everything is an ad now, and it’s selling nothing but itself.

This isn’t a new idea, and I’ve written about it here at length before. What really interests me, though, is how even the most successful examples of storytelling are judged by how effectively they point to some undefined future product. The Marvel movies are essentially commercials or trailers for the idea of a superhero film: every installment builds to a big, meaningless battle that serves as a preview for the confrontation in an upcoming sequel, and we know that nothing can ever truly upset the status quo when the studio’s slate of tentpole releases has already been announced well into the next decade. They aren’t bad films, but they’re just ever so slightly better than they have to be, and I don’t have much of an interest in seeing any more. (Man of Steel has plenty of problems, but at least it represents an actual point of view and an attempt to work through its considerable confusions, and I’d sooner watch it again than The Avengers.) Marvel is fortunate enough to possess one of the few brands capable of maintaining an audience, and it’s petrified at the thought of losing it with anything so upsetting as a genuine surprise. And you can’t blame anyone involved. As Christopher McQuarrie aptly puts it, everyone in Hollywood is “terribly lost and desperately in need of help,” and the last thing Marvel or Disney wants is to turn one of the last reliable franchises into anything less than a predictable stream of cash flows. The pop culture pundits who criticize it—many of whom may not have jobs this time next year—should be so lucky.

Untitled Film Still #30 by Cindy Sherman

But it’s unclear where this leaves the rest of us, especially with the question of how to catch the viewer’s eye while inspiring an engagement that lasts. The human brain is wired in such a way that the images or ideas that seize its attention most easily aren’t likely to retain it over the long term: the quicker the impression, the sooner it evaporates, perhaps because it naturally appeals to our most superficial impulses. Which only means that it’s worth taking a close look at works of art that both capture our interest and reward it. It’s like going to an art gallery. You wander from room to room, glancing at most of the exhibits for just a few seconds, but every now and then, you see something that won’t let go. Usually, it only manages to intrigue you for the minute it takes to read the explanatory text beside it, but occasionally, the impression it makes is a lasting one. Speaking from personal experience, I can think of two revelatory moments in which a glimpse of a picture out of the corner of my eye led to a lifelong obsession. One was Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills; the other was the silhouette work of Kara Walker. They could hardly be more different, but both succeed because they evoke something to which we instinctively respond—movie archetypes and clichés in Sherman’s case, classic children’s illustrations in Walker’s—and then force us to question why they appealed to us in the first place.

And they manage to have it both ways to an extent that most artists would have reason to envy. Sherman’s film stills both parody and exploit the attitudes that they meticulously reconstruct: they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they didn’t also serve as pin-ups for readers of Art in America. Similarly, Walker’s cutouts fill us with a kind of uneasy nostalgia for the picture books we read growing up, even as they investigate the darkest subjects imaginable. (They also raise fascinating questions about intentionality. Sherman, like David Lynch, can come across as a naif in interviews, while Walker is closer to Michael Haneke, an artist who is nothing if not completely aware of how each effect was achieved.) That strange combination of surface appeal and paradoxical depth may be the most promising angle of attack that artists currently have. You could say much the same about Vijith Assar’s recent piece for McSweeney’s about ambiguous grammar, which starts out as the kind of viral article that we all love to pass around—the animated graphics, the prepackaged nuggets of insight—only to end on a sweet sucker punch. The future of art may lie in forms that seize on the tools of virality while making us think twice about why we’re tempted to click the share button. And it requires artists of unbelievable virtuosity, who are able to exactly replicate the conditions of viral success while infusing them with a white-hot irony. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. This is the game we’re all playing, like it or not, and the artists who are most likely to survive are the ones who can catch the eye while also burrowing into the brain.

Cindy Sherman and the viewer’s vertigo

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Untitled Film Still by Cindy Sherman

Ranking artists and their works may be little more than a critical parlor game, but as games go, it’s fun and sometimes instructive, and it’s hard for me to resist a good list. I’ve been fascinated for as long as I can remember by the Sight & Sound poll of great movies, as much for its alterations over time as its current snapshot of our cultural canon: Vertigo‘s rise, Bergman’s fall, the ascent of such directors as Abbas Kiarostami and Wong Kar-Wai. Contemporary visual art doesn’t have a similar cyclical poll, but maybe it should, if only for what it tells us about our shifting tastes. Vanity Fair recently conducted a survey of art world luminaries to determine the greatest living artist, and at first glance, the results are more or less what you’d expect: Gerard Richter at the top, followed closely by Jasper Johns, with such familiar names as Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and Ellsworth Kelly appearing lower down. The omissions, too, are fascinating: Damien Hirst got a paltry three votes, Julian Schnabel none at all, which only reminds us how quickly the critical consensus can change, or how little auction prices and celebrity count in the long run. Yet a poll like this says as much about the way we see art as about the artists themselves, and I’d like to focus, in particular, on the most highly ranked woman on the list, Cindy Sherman, whose career reveals so much about the kind of art that grabs and maintains our attention.

I’ve been a Sherman devotee for a long time, ever since discovering her Untitled Film Stills in my sophomore year in college. In some ways, Sherman is the secret muse behind my novels: along with Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag, she’s the artist who first got me thinking about the ambivalent relationship of photography toward its practitioners and its subjects, a thread that runs throughout The Icon Thief, in which one of her photos makes a cameo appearance. And it’s no accident that all of these artists were women. The story of women and photography is a tangled one, tinged with notions of power and powerlessness, agency and objectification, the male gaze and the need to document lives that might otherwise go unseen. Arbus is best known for her photos of others, in the most literal sense, but we’re also fascinated by her self-portraits, and Sherman has always been her only model. The Untitled Film Stills are hugely powerful—I vividly remember my first encounter with one—but they’re also beguiling acts of mimicry and disguise. Sherman, who always enjoyed dressing up as imaginary characters, began photographing herself almost as an afterthought, and the result is a set of images that remain endlessly evocative. Each suggests a single enigmatic moment in an ongoing narrative, to the extent that you could use them as a collection of story prompts, like an eroticized version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and even after thirty years, they’re still compelling and seductive.

Centerfold by Cindy Sherman

Which brings me to an uncomfortable point about Sherman, and one that doesn’t always get enough emphasis in critical discussions of her career, which is how shrewdly her earlier pictures utilize her own sexuality to draw male viewers into her work. Sherman was and remains an attractive woman, and it’s hard to imagine her photos troubling us in the way they do if her own face wasn’t so naturally suited to being transformed into a fantasy object: sex kitten, ingenue, working girl, ice queen. Taken as a whole, these metamorphoses are troubling and mesmerizing, but when you view them in isolation, they slip uneasily into the same category of image they’re meant to satirize. Even as her work plays on clichés of feminine iconography, she seizes our attention by appealing to the same part of the brain. Two her framed prints live in my office, so familiar by now that I barely even notice them, but if I had to explain why I put them there, I’d have to admit that the impulse isn’t that different from when I’d decorate my room as a teenager with album sleeves and magazine cutouts. I like the way they look, and when I was younger, they ended up on the cover of more than one mix tape. Sherman spoofs and subverts the idea of the female art object, but in the process, she turns herself into the very thing she’s trying to undermine—a pin-up for readers of Art in America.

In her later work, Sherman would assume increasingly grotesque and horrifying masks, and her recent run of clown pictures, for instance, isn’t something you’d hang on a dorm room wall. Yet there’s no denying that her early fame and continued appeal rest on the way in which her most famous works simultaneously embody and undermine their sources: it’s no accident that the recent collection of her Untitled Film Stills used a cover image of Sherman at her most glamorous. Which may be her most enduring lesson. So many works of art stick in the imagination because they oscillate between surface appeal and darker depths: Vertigo is both the ultimate Hitchcock thriller, with its Edith Head costumes and lush Bernard Herrmann score, and also the most psychologically complex of all Hollywood movies. Like its opening shot, it starts with the eye, then plunges in deeper, and much of its power comes from how we identify first with Scotty, then with Madeline and her unwilling Shermanesque transformation. Sherman, like Hitchcock, draws us in with the story she seems to be telling, then forces us to rethink why we care about such stories at all. (It’s also true of Kara Walker, the only other woman on the Vanity Fair list, whose paper cutouts and silhouettes evoke classic children’s illustration while confronting us with the horror of slavery.) This requires both enormous technical virtuosity and a curious kind of naiveté, which we see whenever Hitchcock and Sherman discuss their work. We’re left intrigued but unsettled, unsure of how much of our response comes from the art itself or from our own misreading of it. And in the end, we realize that we’re in the picture, too, just beyond the edges of the frame.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Monster of Art

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Yesterday, after watching clips of Lady Gaga’s peculiar drag performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, I became aware of two things almost simultaneously. The first is that Gaga is the ultimate realization of what Cindy Sherman once promised. I’ve been a huge fan of Sherman’s ever since discovering her Untitled Film Stills, with their uneasy but seductive commentaries on roleplaying, voyeurism, and, above all, the importance of movies in shaping our ideas of ourselves and others. Although her work has grown increasingly alienating over time, she remains one of our most interesting artists, and you can draw a direct line from her to Gaga, an acknowledged fan. Indeed, Gaga might be Sherman’s daughter: both women are provocateurs, aggressively intelligent yet fascinatingly blank, famous but unknown, so that either could probably walk down the street unrecognized, after all the costumes and disguises have been stripped away.

Of course, Gaga is far more famous than Sherman has ever been, which leads me to my second realization, which is that we’re witnessing a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in twenty years or more. Gaga is that rarest of pop icons, a deservedly popular artist who also serves as a conduit for smuggling unexpected images and ideas into America’s heartland. The VMAs were seen by the largest audience in MTV history, which means that Gaga’s strange little drag act succeeded, if nothing else, in confusing the hell out of millions. I’m not saying that her performance as Jo Calderone was entirely successful—the reaction of most viewers was probably close to Justin Bieber’s—but the fact that it was staged at all, with such oddness and commitment, counts as a weird sort of triumph, a Whitney Biennial moment in a Jersey Shore world.

And a crucial part of Gaga’s genius is her accessibility. Some have criticized her for linking outrageous imagery to resolutely conventional (if highly accomplished) pop music, but it’s hard to imagine her ascending to her current cultural position in any other way. And her talent as a musician shouldn’t be underestimated. As a lifelong fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I’ve always believed that dance music can be as rich a form of expression as any other, and Gaga comes closer than any arena-level artist in a long time to achieving that magical combination of irony, earnestness, and encyclopedic skill. A song like “Alejandro” is a miniature history of pop music, both good and bad, as well as a movie, a radio play, and a sensational dance song. And Gaga’s art absolutely needs to be part of the mainstream to make any sense. It’s no accident that her first two albums are called The Fame and The Fame Monster.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this heady combination of surrealism and accessibility hasn’t been seen in this country for more than twenty years—since June 10, 1991, to be exact, when Twin Peaks went off the air. Both Lady Gaga and David Lynch used their nimbleness, intelligence, and talent to introduce an unprecedented level of strangeness to a mass audience. Both ended up on the cover of Time. Both were clearly just good kids at heart. And both emerged during recessionary, politically divided, and culturally conservative periods that nonetheless managed to produce at least one exemplar of the outré, as if all the culture’s unresolved weirdness were being channeled into a single icon. Lynch, of course, has retreated in recent years, and where Gaga goes from here is anyone’s guess: I have no doubt she’ll continue to produce interesting music, but it’s hard to imagine her thriving anywhere but in the spotlight. But at the moment, she threatens to make the rest of us seem obsolete.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2011 at 9:50 am

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