New York

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures/Vivian Horan Fine Art

Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits exist in a referential never-never land; neither pastiche nor camp, they lack the specificity of referent so dear to both. Her early “film stills,” in which she dons various outfits, have less to do with fashion and the languages of representation that serve it, and more to do with the use of clothing as props. Creating characters out of sophisticated forms of dress-up (like the horsey gal she conjures out of jodhpurs and a polka-dot sweater in Untitled #118, 1983), Sherman “regresses” in front of the camera. Crucial to her oeuvre, these “fashion photos” constitute her first big foray into her own imagination, and from this point on her work leaves the careful critical positioning of the “film stills” to delve into the fantastical.

In her most recent work, Sherman (like Laurie Simmons and outsider Surrealist Hans Bellmer) photographs things created by people to stand in for humans, but instead of dummies and dolls she uses instructional mannequins ordered from medical supply companies. Infused with the “creepiness” of the clinical, these objects are further defamiliarized by Sherman’s dismantling and reassembling of them, as she poses them in sexual tableaux or pornographic attitudes of self-display. In Untitled #253, 1992, the head of a dummy wearing a simulated breast-exam bib has been shoved upside-down between its legs: a grotesque model of auto-eroticism, as well as a funny diagram of the safest sex there is.

Sherman’s new work has already been enthusiastically misinterpreted as exclusively concerning the link between sex and violence. What has been ignored is that these are only mannequins. By removing the human element (herself), Sherman makes the gulf of representation into a canyon, allowing for an ample dose of humor to slip into the grotesquerie constructed from this very disturbing subject matter. These are really funny photographs. They had a lot of people laughing and losing their lunch at the same time. Dolls having sex can, apparently, still reduce us to a state of infantile giddiness. Full of departures, Sherman’s recent work regresses into childlike fantasies, but fermented fantasies, colored by sexual traumas of adulthood.

Sherman’s work retains an aura of quasi-mystical seriousness due to the exquisiteness of its fabrication. These are probably Sherman’s most technically sophisticated photos to date. Her ambient amber and blue mood lighting, and use of kinky compositional tricks, at times make the Caucasian plastic spring to life, recalling the gory spectacles of the transformation from the synthetic into the organic in horror films. But because artifice wins out and humor prevails (especially in Untitled #254, 1992, in which a penis has been tied into a knot and a design carved into the balls), Sherman cuts yet another path between political sensitivity and irreverent regression.

Discourses surrounding the body, in the wake of the AIDS crisis and a heightened awareness of sexual discrimination, have emerged as among the most crucial cultural and political issues of our time. Sherman’s engagement with these issues is exemplary in its breadth. Instead of a dogmatic critique of gender and sex roles, this new work constitutes a truly open-ended discourse around the body’s pathetic struggles to locate a source of pleasure, and a squeamish delight in representing the gnarlyness of our own tingly parts and what they want to do to each other.

Matthew Weinstein