The beauty of walking into a Cindy Sherman exhibition is that there is always a new group of women there waiting for you on the wall, asking you to understand and explore their lives.
Sherman is known for reimagining female tropes by embodying them with all manner of hair and makeup and photographing the results. In her latest collection of work at the Metro Pictures gallery, she has embarked on not just another successful journey into the representation of women but, uncharacteristically, a journey into herself. “I relate so much to these women,” she told Blake Gopnik of the New York Times. “They look like they’ve been through a lot, and they’re survivors. And you can see some of the pain in there, but they’re looking forward and moving on.” In the past, as Gopnik points out, Sherman has thought of herself more as a mannequin than a person who makes autobiographical work.
In the exhibition, which showcases Sherman’s first collection of work in four years, the artist morphs herself into aged, 1920s and ‘30s-era Hollywood starlets against digitized backgrounds meant to mimic film sets and backdrops. In a press release, the gallery writes this is “the first era that presented complex independent women characterized by exaggerated makeup, modern clothing and seductive poses” in publicity photos.
Sherman’s painstaking attention to even the smallest of details like nail color, eyebrow density, and hair texture makes her subjects’ (and thereby her own) desperate grasps at processing the passage of time stirringly palpable. For example, Sherman shows these women, who were once perhaps the coquettes and vixens of their day, with their finger waves tight to their skulls as they were in their youth, while their hands are etched with new veins, spots, wrinkles, and shadows. Some of them still wear the thick, black eye makeup of the vamps they became known for playing in films or the candy-pink nail polish of the teenagers they once were. On the silver screen, these women blossomed, flitting about in bobs and dropped-waist dresses; now, unsure of their next phase of life, they waver, still outfitted in the trimmings of the person they or someone else created for them. Not one has gray hair.
Sherman’s new series not only makes an astute cultural observation about women’s roles in society as her now-famous Untitled Film Stills or Centerfolds did, but is a bold act of intimate personal expression. In a sense, at the age of 62, she is also trying to understand herself as a part of the group she portrays in the collection — a departure from her previous, non-autobiographical work that functioned primarily as a social critique. And, as if she wants her audience to feel this self-identification, she does not change the color of her eyes for any of the portraits: “They are me, I am them,” she seems to say, her ice-blue eyes staring back into the bright white of the gallery.
But make no mistake, the work is as intelligently, craftily political as it is personal: In an age when we’re constantly calling out the objectification of women, Sherman’s work forces us to gaze at not just women, but older women who are consistently desexualized, stigmatized, and written off by our culture. Her subjects’ expressions are never blank, never without an experience to share: they are angry, bemused, wistful, and bored and, just as Sherman herself is, rife with stories and lived lives that aren’t to be ignored. Not only that, but Sherman shows this by drawing attention to fashions traditionally considered frivolous aspects of women’s culture — hairstyle, makeup, clothing — thereby exhibiting how they’re not frivolous at all but rather aspects of building an identity.
As I looked at these women, relics of what was once the new platform of film, I wondered what the women of today are interacting with as their “new platform.” I thought of social media. Like film, it is a way of looking at and tracking yourself through time. If Sherman came of age in this era, I wondered, perhaps in a few decades she would develop a series of elderly women taking selfies, trying to recapture those they took as young women in the early days of social media.
Sherman’s latest work forces us to examine and reconsider the roles we ask and have asked women, of a certain age and in general, to play. The result is a perceptive body of work that allows the viewer to understand not just life as a woman, but as the elusive Sherman herself.
Cindy Sherman continues at Metro Pictures (519 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 11.