New York

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures

At a time when would-be expressionists, neo-, naive, and new whatchamacallits of every ilk inhabit the nooks and crannies of the art world, infecting New York with a slightly hysterical, hothouse atmosphere, Cindy Sherman’s work has the welcome bite of cold water in a tropical climate. She explores contemporary passions and the subterfuge of imagery (in both the mass media and painting) in a clear-headed, self-possessed manner that does not in any way lessen their impact.

Sherman continues to be writer, director, set designer, and actor in her one-woman, one-frame stories. In her recent show of ten color photographs she plays all the roles: women in vulnerable, intimate poses—in bed, crouching, sitting, lying down. These characters range from childlike waifs, through women who have clearly seen the seamier side of life, to women whose posture bears the imprint of tedious domesticity: all seem to be waiting. The apparent narcissism of these photographs is not gratuitous, nor is there any hint of the self-aggrandizement that might have resulted from the vicarious assumption of other personae. There is no feeling of obsession with the self here. The artist’s use of herself as model prevents these photographs from being tagged as documentary portraits of specific individuals; they are conceived so as to focus the viewer’s attention on the psychological states they evoke, and on the manipulative artifice of the imagery. In so doing they throw the spotlight back onto the public, ready consumers of facile images.

In this series our appetites are whetted for narrative, but then we are left to our own resources. Stories are suggested, not prescribed. Sherman lures us into what seems to be the heart of narrative, setting up intense psychological and esthetic moods which are meant to conjure clichés and set our mass-media memory banks working. Functioning like movie posters plastered with stills to entice the public, these photographs draw us into speculations on absent dramas.

But more interesting than any actual story is the stylization of imagery here. These pictures recount an associative tale of stereotypes and artistic conventions. The genres evoked lean toward melodrama: soap operas, grade-B movies, and thrillers are the most obvious sources. All close-ups, the photographs are charged with the implicit, easily victimized sexuality and psychological tension which are the stock-in-trade of such genres. The thematic consistency of the photographs heightens their emotional density. Though they seem to be from movies we might have seen, they possess a quality that eludes identification—we recognize them as familiar and respond as convention dictates, but they are too disturbing to be dismissed as parody.

The photographs’ frequently skewed perspective is unsettling, underscoring the camera as voyeur, as the intruding eye of an unseen, menacing protagonist. Though there is only one figure in each image, the presence of other characters is deftly implied. In one, a young girl with short hair (inexplicably wet, though her clothes are dry) crouches, her hand splayed out on the floor for support, gazing up in apparent terror toward, but not directly at, the camera. In another, the camera hovers over a young, all-American girl in a short orange-and-white gingham skirt lying on the floor. She looks up a bit coquettishly at someone we cannot see.

The dramatic manipulations of this work extend beyond its obvious connection to film. Sherman uses theatrical artifice to explore the artifice of photography and painting, and their relationship to one another. The staged nature of the photographs deprives the camera of its indiscriminate type of vision, establishing the artist’s control of every detail within the picture frame, and revealing Sherman’s truly painterly concern with composition, light, shadow, and hue. These in turn add to the photographs’ drama, while undercutting the melodramatic content of the imagery. Details are used sparingly, and are often plunged in Caravaggian shadow. Their symbolic economy harks back to painting of an earlier age, though their iconography is contemporary: a torn bit of newspaper clutched in a hand; the edge of old disheveled underwear peeking out over the top of jeans. In one photograph the face of a young girl is lit in Georges de La Tour fashion by firelight outside the picture frame. Her face dominates the right foreground; in the virtual blackout of the greater portion of the photograph we can just discern the folds of a blanket. The luxuriant draperies that run through the history of western painting become rumpled bedclothes that convey claustrophobia and entrapment.

For all this, these are stories that painting could not tell. Only by drawing on our photographic memory can Sherman so skillfully fuse the cultural clichés and conventions of both the camera and the brush.

Jamey Gambrell