Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Diane Arbus

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

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