New York

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures

For more than a decade, Cindy Sherman has delivered what many have regarded as one of the most sustained and eloquent disquisitions on the morphology of the image and the structure of desire. By contrast, the response to Sherman’s most recent work has been nothing if not circumspect. Admittedly, as a group the latest series of photographs lacks a clear agenda; its language is polyglot and its subject matter elusive: Sherman draws on Christian iconography, the legacy of Surrealism, the cult of the grotesque, and horror-movie schlock. If Caravaggio is here, along with Hans Bellmer, and Joel-Peter Witkin, so is Chucky. Indeed, in the face of this panoply of possibilities, even the loquacious Peter Schjeldahl seemed at a loss for words. Faced with the lack of programmatic intentions, Schjeldahl took the easy way out, asserting that these works are a means of confounding “a present cottage industry of interpreters who presume to understand her,” all while begging the question of whether or not the “evolution” of Sherman’s career has outstripped the dense exegeses that have attended it to date.

Experimenting for the first time with photographic techniques inherited from the Surrealists—multiple exposures, superimpositions, and the manipulation of the photographic negative (low-tech effects whose obsolescence has been guaranteed by the computer)—Sherman’s most recent images have a faintly Victorian feel. Ghostly residues, the aftermath of some photochemical séance, they combine hokeyness with a diffuse sense of menace. A pair of hands frame the truncated torso of a bald male mannequin, who, though armless, seems to cradle the body of a child wearing the head of a life-size woman. The blurring of the double exposure creates a space that is simultaneously tremulous and pulsating, implosive as well as explosive—the central motif suspended in querulous equilibrium. In another image, also blurred and indistinct except for the scratching on the print that suggests a halo or crown of thorns, an emanation is formed from two differently scaled bodies. Here, body proper and body-prop stand in for each other. Artifice is foregrounded in a way that aligns Sherman’s low-tech methods with the psychic terrain she explores.

Hung salon-style, a series of six images make plastic origami of gruesome prosthetic masks. A deep red vortex of heads and hands suggests the kinesthetic space of horror pioneered by the hot-head camera mount and the Steadycam. In another image, a head floats above the body from which it is separated, connected by an umbilical cord made of bandages in which its disguised features are swaddled. But if these images adopt the protocols of horror films, they do so in the name of convulsive beauty. Never truly repulsive, they speak of a colonization of the abhorrent. Deprived of their atavism, these signifiers of fear become something mildly antiquated and quaint: they occupy a place where the image becomes disentangled from the danse macabre of interpretation.

Whether or not these images are designed to confound is hard to say. Sherman described her earlier “Vomit” series, 1991, as a means of testing the limits of what is deemed collectible, which perhaps goes some way toward supporting Schjeldahl’s contention that thematic diversity is a foil to interpretation. But as a strategy it reeks of disingenuousness. Without recourse to the old myths that placed talent outside production, lack of resolution and commitment is sadly and unavoidably just that. Meanwhile between the suspension of critical disbelief and the presumptuousness of interpretation, we are asked to hold our breath and wait—a prospect as compromising to the dedicated as it is suffocating to the skeptics.

Neville Wakefield