Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman’s oeuvre is expanding in both directions—not just forward time, but backward as well. We have always been told that her work begins in 1977, with ’’Untitled Film Stills,“ the series that occupied her through 1980. (Although the ’97 traveling LA MoCA retrospective included five images dated 1975, that show’s catalogue treated these straight-on head shots, in which the artist altered her appearance by means of hats and makeup, less as part of the oeuvre itself than as part of its background. Indeed, the pictures were presented not in the chronological sequence of plates but as illustrations for one of the catalogue’s introductory essays along with images by precursors like Eleanor Antin and Hans Bellmer.) Now Sherman has chosen to make public thirty-two black-and-white images dated 1976 (but printed in 2000) that together constitute two series, ”Bus Riders“ and ”Murder Mystery People.“ First appearing at Glen Horowitz Booksellers on Long Island and currently on display at London’s greengrassi, they are quite different in form from the images in ”Untitled Film Stills“: straightforward portraits, not unlike Sherman’s most recent work. Both series feature single figures, played by the artist herself, always in the same studio setting with the same rough wooden floor and Sheetrock walls. Makeup, hairstyle, clothing, and a few portable ”personal effects" characterize the people portrayed, the only other props being a chair or a stool. As if to emphasize the stripped-down yet undisguised artificiality of the setups, the camera’s trip wire is always visible.

In a way, not much has changed in Sherman’s approach to her work since these earlier pieces. Although production values may be a little higher in her latest crop of color photographs, some of which are on view at Metro Pictures, the theatrical fakery of her impersonations is right there on the surface in the new works as much as in the first ones. Nothing is meant to be convincing, one might say, except the work itself. The raunchy makeup, the misaligned wig, the putty nose, the blow-up breasts sticking out of the low-cut black lingerie—all are there to be seen for their own inherent pathos but, more important, for the fact that theater thrives on overcoming the inherent limits of its verisimilitude. Sherman knows that even the ham actor’s phoniness becomes the instrument of a desperate need to affect an audience. And although she has learned from painting, Conceptual art, and—yes— photography, the basis of her art is always theatrical, even when the scenery is uninhabited, as in some of her work from the late ’80s, or populated by puppets, as in the early ’90s. That’s why photographic technique is such a nonissue for her.

In the pictures from 1976, it’s as if two parts of Sherman’s aesthetic were still incommunicado, one series (“Bus Riders”) being devoted to banality, the other (“Murder Mystery People”) to melodrama. (Her current work at Metro Pictures understands banality and melodrama as homologous.) In “Bus Riders,” people—students, shoppers, seniors, commuters—are observed on excursions around the city; in “Murder Mystery People,” characters out of what seems to be an Agatha Christie-type country-house whodunit (or maybe just a game of Clue?) are on display: the wife, the butler, the maid, the actress, the movie director, the reporter, and so on. In both, Sherman tries out sociological and narrative terrain she would later skirt: She impersonates not only women but men as well (who again appear in her work only in a few of the 1988-90 takeoffs on old-master paintings, her weakest pieces to date), for example; and in five of the “Bus Riders” she appears in blackface. You can see why depicting men seemed a dead end. The male impersonations have a larky, play-acty quality that’s just too light. On the other hand, Sherman’s black figures mostly do touch the same poignant core as her other work.

Still, it’s not surprising that there are no black women among the types portrayed in Sherman’s new Metro Pictures images. There are a lot of well-earned inhibitions that stand in the way of any white artist treating black subjects as ruthlessly as Sherman does the women she plays in the series. Eleven of these pictures are already well-known, having been exhibited to considerable acclaim at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills last spring, a sort of site-specific show insofar as the women depicted were meant to be pretty much the same kind of people who might have come to see them—privileged but pathetic, inadequate actresses of their own poorly chosen roles. For the show in New York, the West Coast women have been supplemented by eleven “East Coast types.” Wherever you’re from, you’ve seen most of these women before somewhere, only you can’t be sure whether it was at the opening or on daytime TV: society hostesses, soccer moms, businesswomen who’ve hit the glass ceiling, faded starlets, would-be earth mothers. And doesn’t the one in the slightly flouncy blue dress clutching a teddy bear resemble the newly elected senator from New York, that mistress and slave of her own image? Lie the rest of Sherman’s new tragicomic grotesques, she evokes Velázquez’s wizened Pope Innocent engulfed in the regalia of his office, a human being imprisoned in her own idea of herself.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.