New York

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures

Cindy Sherman’s latest photographs (all Untitled, 1988 and 1989), like her previous ones,will probably be called “shocking,” as if shock were itself a brave or startling artistic gesture. Once again, people will say that she’s upped the ante on nauseating imagery, gone over the top with the grotesque, and explored psychic terrain from which many viewers would rather avert their eyes. All of this may be provisionally true, but it misses the critical point that Sherman uses shock more as a ruse or decoy than as a mere representational effect. What’s really surprising about this new series is that Sherman is no longer in the pictures. In withdrawing herself from them, she robs them of the most obvious and essential aspect of what is thought to constitute “a Cindy Sherman.” In the past, Sherman deployed her own identity as a crucible for multiple, coded identities circulating throughout high and low culture, literally making herself into the medium of her art. Here, she severs this connection, instead engaging a troupe of little actors—dolls, toy monsters, teddy bears, masks—to enact her exquisitely composed scenes of spoliation, dissolution, and disgust.

Sherman bathes these abused, unhappy, messy objects in gelatinous, viscous fluids. The resulting images allude to violent births or deaths (one cannot tell which), nasty, “perverted” sex, and festering decay. But the works are ultimately decorative efflorescences; together, they constitute a kind of rococo of repulsion. What remains compelling in these pictures is not the subject matter per se, but Sherman’s use of fetishized objects as surrogates. She refers not to the devastations of the flesh or the psyche (compare her images to the highly personalized representational self-mutilations of Lucas Samaras), but rather to the conditions of unfettered fantasy provided by the constructions of art: any fantasy will do. Sherman’s pictures are brilliantly porous, so that, like the archetypes from which they derive their raw imagery, they predicate an interpretive multiplicity. Individual readings, however acute and interesting, are necessarily a very secondary affair.

As if to underscore her telling absence from these pictures, in two of them she reinscribes herself allegorically as the artist’s hand. In one, the hand holds up aneviscerated teddy bear for our delectation. The scene is garishly, weirdly lit; it is nearly impossible to discern the work’s light source. In the other, the hand reappears as if it were attached somehow to the maniacal, blond-wigged doll: as if this were still Sherman herself in the picture, as we have come to expect. The artist’s hand points to Sherman as manipulator: art director, make-up artist, lighting designer—anything but actress/herself, the paradoxical dichotomy on which her previous work has been based.

David Rimanelli