New York

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures

Cindy Sherman has gone digital! It’s still her masquerading for the camera as she brings to life a series of clowns (twelve of which were included in this exhibition), who are easily among the most flamboyant characters she has ever created. But in several of these new photographs (all works 2004), Sherman employs digital technology to multiply her image within a single frame. Dressed in clown outfits, clusters of her surrogates share space for the first time. They rub shoulders, snatch furtive glimpses, taunt one another, and leer at us from the other side of the looking glass—introducing in the process new potential for social narrative. Sherman has also activated the background space of her photographs, and the results are positively psychedelic. Pulsing, fruit-colored patterns, spinning whirlpools, and other wild special effects telegraph highly charged psychological states and suggest a carnivalesque virtual environment.

Do we identify with these clowns? Certainly not in the way we have with most of Sherman’s characters. Looking at the “Untitled Film Stills,” don’t we see ourselves in relation to the ingenue? Ditto Sherman’s impersonations and parodies of fashion victims, matrons, and other idiosyncratic types. Her ever-growing social registry of American culture, particularly the female half, relies on keen observation—hers and our own.

Human nature is luridly on display in this particular troupe. In their eye-popping domain, everything is patently artificial. Even though the clowns display moods and behaviors—cocky, clever, raucous, inquisitive, innocent, withdrawn, or indifferent—that can be endearingly familiar, their difference from us, despite the human posturing and pantomime, is pronounced. Echoing the monsters, ghouls, and aliens that have appeared in Sherman’s work before, the clowns exceed the limits of the everyday and in their “post-human” vigor hint at some ultimate form of “letting go.”

Traditionally, clowns are anonymous. The identity of the person behind the mask is inconsequential. Clowns are all surface and no depth, yet they are as old as culture itself. Where we’ve been, they’ve always been, which makes clowns an intriguing symbol. Given the importance of identities that are mass-produced and passed around in Sherman’s work, her impersonations of (usually) feminine stereotypes have always been remarkably clownlike. With her makeup, masks, costumes, and disguises, it’s as if Sherman had been “clowning” from the get-go. Even though her ingenues and circus clowns share a thing about getting dressed up and posing for the camera, the latter are immeasurably more resistant to blending in with the crowd. They don’t seem to live in our world—but that’s not to say that the world we live in hasn’t become alarmingly like their own. A raucous extravaganza of fools, buffoons, and lunatics, with nary an “ordinary” person in sight? Is it a circus, the nightly news, or a subject listing for new figuration?

The mushrooming of clowns in contemporary art points in the direction of a zany zeitgeist that substitutes silliness for substance but incorporates a healthy dose of irony. Given the enmeshing of images from the front lines, entertainment media, special-effects cinema, and the Internet added to the pervasive tension of a post-9/11 world, perhaps we should view the arrival of the clowns as a sign. They appear to be quite happy in a society that verges on total insanity.

Jan Avgikos