New York

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures

“Oh no!” New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl confesses to blurting audibly at Cindy Sherman’s recent show, and although he is a devoted fan of hers, it’s easy to see why. Even for an artist who regularly makes her audience think twice, these images are horrid, an exorbitant omnigatherum of violence, sex, and generally messed-up physicality. On top of that, and weirdly enough simultaneously, you might also think they were stale, recycling not just a strategy used by a number of artists of Sherman’s generation—the staging and photographing of scenarios based on dolls—but earlier works of her own, the “Sex Pictures” of 1992. This time around, both the dolls and the pictures are smaller, and along with their relative modesty comes a return to black-and-white, which Sherman hasn’t used in nearly twenty years; but even so the turf feels familiar.

Schjeldahl quickly comes around; by the end of his review, we have learned of Sherman that “she is a genius” and that her pictures are “formally perfect.” Not that I’d necessarily argue—it’s pleasant to be a fan—but he isn’t telling me much: There’s no consensus on formal perfection, which strong art in any case constantly redefines, so that what looks formally perfect to one generation can look just flat to the next. Among Sherman’s models in this work, furthermore, is pornography, surely the genre that inspired the pose of the silicone-breasted doll who lies on her back, smiling benignly while spreading her thighs with her hands. (Mind you, she has two vaginas.) Pornography has been accused of so many things you’d think formal perfection would be in there somewhere, but if so that must have been the op-ed I missed.

No one, of course, would mistake these photos for porn—they show dolls, not people, and you’d have to admit to a deep perversity to find their grotesquerie a turn-on. They also have a refined visual texture that’s at the same time silky and grained, their soft grays tending on inspection to decompose into a fine particulate mist. The photographs accrue some of their edge from the break between their print quality and their subject matter. They also benefit from a tricky emotional tone: They so consistently show bodies with distorted or outsized or the wrong number of parts that the viewer tends to want to lump them into one continuum, but there are actually several locations here, not just the blue movie but the horror movie, not just the gym but the hospital. The overinflated babe is matched by an old man whose distended penis suggests not potency but a medical condition, the beefcake hunk with the gauche body hair (like a riff on a Robert Gober wax leg) by a dismembered girl borne solicitously in a wheelchair (though it is clearly far too late). The actors being dolls, they mostly look impassive or even cheerful, whatever happens; but Sherman may also go to work on a face (perhaps with a saw?), giving one little baby a jagged grin.

The pictures are engrossing, I want to say grimly so, but they’re also somehow mild and sporadically funny. The gothic chaos of the “Sex Pictures,” and also of earlier Cibachromes of witchery and fright, appears here in a smaller frame and a more sober palette. Some critics see such imagery as inherently subversive, implying some rift in the social order, but although satiric targets do come into view in these works, the larger subject seems to be the body, and the compulsions and confinements impressed on us by its shape, its aging, the force of its desires. Horror is in any case a popular American genre, cozily embedded in the flow of media production; if the gothic is subversive, so’s Hollywood. It’s not such a leap from these photographs to little Chucky of the Child’s Play flicks, and Sherman, interviewed in Art in America (June 1997), talked about horror films and her own work in similar terms: “There’s something you laugh at” in horror movies, she says, “knowing that it’s all artificial”; and when she herself deals with the “horrors of the world,” she likes to do it in a “fake, humorous, artificial way.”

When Sherman made a film, Office Killer (1997), it was an Ed Gein–in-the-workplace fantasia about a psychotic copy editor who systematically exterminates her office mates, then arranges their bodies in a jaunty tableau in her basement. Despite the fab Carol Kane’s performance as the central character, Dorine, the movie moves rather stiffly; by her own modest account in Art in America, Sherman didn’t have the syntax of film at her fingertips, and she ended up with a patchy team product. As story, though, and in places as visual spectacle, Office Killer shares territory with her recent show, and what’s striking is that the discomfort tends to resolve into laughs, instead of the other way around. Part serial killer, part underdog, Dorine’s a woman both to run from and to root for; she’s also a woman who, as the bodies rot, knows how to hold them together with Scotch tape.

It’s a safe bet that tape is among the tools in Sherman’s studio, and given the nature of Sherman’s work, seeing Dorine as a parodic artist figure is kind of irresistible. (Give that girl a practice! and maybe she’d be fine.) But if, among the moods of these latest photographs, we settle on gothic giggles, it’s a rather lackluster exchange. Film involves both high stakes and low expectations; a movie is a big project, but if the result is entertaining that’s often enough. Art, conversely, you can make all by yourself, matching your methods to your resources, but your audience is ambitious in its needs. Sherman seems to be in a period of retrenchment, perhaps refocusing, after the venture into filmmaking, before moving on. It will be good to see her doing something other than imagining blind dates for little Chucky.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.