Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #21” (1978). Gelatin silver print, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman’s one-woman retrospective is profound, provocative and sadly incomplete, most noticeably in relation to her earliest works despite the inclusion of the entire black and white “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980), the “encyclopedic roster of stereotypical female roles” that skewered the post modern discourse on photography right through its kabobs.

More survey than retrospective the show aims to impress, though the clues to her development are to be found in works like “Untitled #479” (1975), 23 hand colored prints of Sherman morphing from a dorky girl in aviator glasses to a besotted harlot. She said the following about this series:

“I did this transitional series-from no makeup at all to me looking like a completely different person … it dawned on me that I’d hit on something.”

Why the 1966 snapshot of Sherman and friend Janet Zink dressed up in costumes as little old ladies was not included in the exhibit (but was in the press materials) is a choice only curator Eva Respini is privy to, but it certainly would have served as a value added bonus to a larger audience.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #465” (2008). Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman

The show emphasizes magnificent Hollywood, faded actors, “trashy has-beens,” middle to upper middle class angst and anxiety, gender bending, the macabre and art history. When she dips into horror and disfigurement, it’s a variety that evokes the lovely twisted Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks and Isabella Rossellini of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Sherman’s focus is not, and could not be the same as those of women in war zones, under the specter of forced migration or repressive censorship. For that more macabre perspective you should visit Yugoslavian photographer Sanja Iveković’s Sweet Violence located just two floors below.

While visiting the Sherman show, I encountered a few “guest critics” named Patricia, Yvonne and Carly (ages eight, seven and five), who were only allowed by their respective handlers to view the PG-rated entrance section of the show, which had the mural “Untitled” (2010) on display. The trio offered me their take on Sherman’s permutations.

“She is a lot like Rosa Parks, someone is after her so she’s disguising herself a lot so they can’t see who she is. Or maybe she is a man. She has the power to change herself, she can spin around and make new clothes cause she has magic powers,” one of the said.

This jives with Sherman’s stated preference of wanting “to make something that people could relate to without having to read a book about it beforehand … so that anybody off the street could appreciate it even if they couldn’t fully understand it” — and that apparently includes the kindergarten set.

And therein lies the rub.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #56” (1980). Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Sherman’s “magic powers” reveal the moment when facades drop and unguarded sadness, revulsion and aloneness seep through the anticipated promise of perfection. She gazes, metaphorically speaking, into the mirror of Narcissus and Echo, cracks it wide open, takes the shards, insets them into her skin, glues them up, pisses and shits on them and finally shines her glaring light onto the rigor and vanity of aging. There is a little bit of everywoman in her denouement, which is why the emotional ricochet shapes so effectively.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #213” (1989). Chromogenic color print, 41 1/2 x 33″ (105.4 x 83.8 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © 2012 Cindy Sherman

The foundation for this method comes can be seen in her early black and white stop animation film “Doll Clothes” (1975), where she pictures herself as a paper cut out doll trying on a number of cut-out costumes. It is this attention to detail of not just clothes, but of body position, gestures, facial animation, props, location and framing that places her work as a continuation of an art historical dialectic shown so deftly in her art history portraits 1988-1990.

The exhibit also contains her centerfolds from the 1980s, sex pictures, fairy tales, disasters clowns and society portraits. It does not show her more caustic commercial commissions for Dianne B, Vogue Paris and Harper’s Bazaar magazines that landed her in hot water with her sponsors for her rogue highlighting of the ugly over the beautiful. That’s because Sherman is much more interested in alienation, death, decay and the suppositions of artifice over the coveting of youth, beauty and glamor.

However, for those not that interested in the trajectory and minutia of Sherman’s thought processes and want only to be moved by the undulation of her imagery, the show packs a wallop, especially for the previously uninitiated.

Cindy Sherman continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) until June 11.

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Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.

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