Irish Museum of Modern Art, November 1994 to February 1995
Review by Mike Catto
To describe Cindy Sherman as a photographer is to invite a look of questioning or of derision from some other photographers. Yet as the exhibition of a selection of her work at IMMA between November 1994 and February 1995 showed, Cindy Sherman's concerns and her physical output place her firmly in the twin (and overlapping) traditions of artist and photographer.
Briefly put, she is a self-portraitist. She uses her own face and body as subject matter, as medium, as vehicle for expression and as the starting point for an interrogation of styles and fashions, techniques, ideologies and grammars of narrative . She chooses to use photography both to record and to collaborate in that interrogation. In order to continue that process she has had to familiarise herself with many techniques and competencies so as to know how the grammar or syntax of, say, lighting or depth of focus can be used and manipulated in different contexts. For example, in her early series Untitled Film Stills, she portrayed herself as the protagonist, sometimes heroine, sometimes victim, in a series of tableaux that evoked the mood of certain film genres or (less frequently) of specific movies. It is not enough to say that she was able to ape Kim Novak in Vertigo or Monica Vitti in any one of a number of Antonioni films, for mere transcription or pastiche was not her aim. She essayed beyond the mimetic, showing that the apparent ability of any lens based medium to create a palpable and 'realistic' universe was based upon the juxtaposition of a number of readily understood and applicable elements. With the Kim Novak she captured the camera angles, the depth of focus and the edginess of composition that one finds in mid-1950s Hitch. The Monica Vitti proved that Antonioni's urban angst was in part explained by a lack of depth of focus and by flattening the characters in a wide screen Sartre-like 2D hell.
In showing that she could understand these components (deconstruction) she was no different than the average Media Studies student who can "explain" Hitchcockor prove that Antonioni was an auteur. The difference arose when she demonstrated her ironic transcendence of the originals. By adding agenda items such as questioning both the role of woman and of the starsystem; by juggling with so many precious styles associated with directors, cinematographers (a sort of James Wong Howe Do They Do That?) and actors; by refusing to give her photoworks any titles or captions Cindy Sherman infuriated those for whom the creative process is seen as (literally) unique and semi-divine.
INTERLUDE: in which post Renaissance and Romantic notions of the artist are adumbrated. The artist learns from his (yes, HIS) predecessors but transforms the earlier forms and techniques into a (yes, A) personal and coherent style. The artist who can turn his hand to any style is at best a pasticheur (yes, -eur, not -euse) and at worse a mere impersonator. This is not to be confused with an Impressionist. Authenticity eschews bravura playing with styles and techniques.
PART TWO: In fact all that Cindy Sherman was doing was what would have been both acceptable and expected of a (male) Baroque painter or 18th Century architect. They would have taken it for granted that their work could be in any style or manner requested by the client and that such work had to demonstrate both a technical/formal mastery of the earlier exemplars and a kind of ironic distance from the originals as if to say "Don't believe all you see". In our century we expect the lonely artist to hew out a difficult and highly individual path. The fact that Sherman shows it all to be a trick, and to show us the mechanics of the trick as well is to mount nothing less than an assault on the integrity of the artist as auteur as solitary genius. Dammit all, the woman (!) is no better than that chap Rory Bremner. Later she moved on to tableaux where she went further, recreating by the use of the kind of artifice that would have been understood in pre-Romantic times, the look of historical and allegorical portraiture. In these she made up her entire body through the use of prosthetics and makeup to give us photographs such as Leonardo and Jean Fouquet might have used had such technology been available to them. From that period (c1988-90) she progressed to works in which she, the recognisable Ms. Sherman is herself deconstructed into parts no different from the sexually explicit dismembered mannequin parts that surround her in some of the shots. These latter works in particular, seen in IMMA alongside the work of the painter Sarmento, reinforced the view that like Madonna, Sherman is a post-modernist whose work re-invents itself on a regular basis and which lays bare subject, object, history's products and processes in ways that are clever and yet actually really quite modest too.