Cindy Sherman is a shapeshifter.
The American artist invites viewers into the female world, which she molds and distorts with her very body. Her contemporary photography deconstructs female stereotypes and provides a lens into human nature.
Sherman is most known for her Untitled Film Stills series (1977-1980), in which she created stills from fake B films and horror movies to satirize Hollywood and its female representation. The black and white photographs show woman models in stereotypical roles presented in films. It’s kitschy and melodramatic and completely controlled by Sherman.
Sherman is always the human model in her photographs. She sets up the camera, puts the scenes together, applies her own makeup and poses for her own shoots. She transforms her identity into that of her character. Her body is a tool that exposes the faults in mass-media’s imagery, and she has full control over the images, which leads to an authentic expression of her vision and experiences.
Film theorist Laura Mulvey describes Sherman’s work in Centerfolds (1981) as “to-be-looked-at-ness” of female representation. In this series, Sherman becomes different characters with her versatile applications of makeup and dress, from a sultry seductress to a rape victim. She points a finger at the two-dimensional pages of men’s magazines and towards the depth of female reality.
Eight years after Centerfolds, Sherman released Sex Pictures, in which she took a step back from modeling, literally, as she remained behind the camera. She mashed prosthetic limbs, mannequins, horror and humor to create otherworldly portraits. Even without a human in the frame, the pieces discuss bodily interactions and distortions on the most human scale. It’s fantastical and anything but sexy.
The artist has never titled her individual photographs, even as her work grows. It’s a step back from control at the final stage, the first time in the process she releases control of her work, creating an intimate relationship between artist and audience. Sherman wants viewers to apply their own interpretations to the pieces without her direction.
It’s been 40 years since Sherman released Untitled Film Stills. Sherman has maintained public attention with her joint roles as artist and muse throughout the decades. In 2011, she broke records when her 1981 self-portrait, appropriately named Untitled, became the highest sold photograph in history. The image captures Sherman sprawled on the floor, dressed as a young woman in a checkered skirt, contemplating something beyond the frame.
Sherman mixes female disembodiment with agency to narrate society’s faults and women’s truths. She spins the public perception of women with satire. Fully in control of her own body and artistic eye, Sherman allows viewers into her analytical, twisted and humorous world, so viewers can improve their own.
Cindy Sherman’s groundbreaking series, Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), will be on public display for the first time in the UK, in a major new retrospective of the artist’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Cindy Sherman opens June 2019.