Hollywood is like life, you face it with the sum total of your equipment. Joan Crawford
In the global village of the art world, Cindy Sherman is a national treasure. She has received all the accolades available to an artist and represented her country twice in Venice. From the black and white Untitled Film Stills series with which she made her name in the late 1970s, through the Centrefolds series of the 1980s and the Society Pictures of the early 2000s, Sherman has explored the myriad tropes of femininity and dissected the way they are constructed through the mass media. Though never one to talk of her own work in terms of theory, she has been a cornerstone of academic feminist discourse since the beginning of her career. Her acute engagement with the unstable quality of selfhood expressed through surface appearance underpins our understanding of the narcissism of current, selfie-obsessed generation.
In her Untitled Film Stills, made when she was in her early twenties, Sherman parodied the stereotypes offered by Hollywood as templates for femininity: she was the ingénue in bobby socks, waiting at the roadside with her suitcase, the pensive young wife in her kitchen, the career-girl in a crisp skirt suit, dwarfed by the skyscrapers of New York City. In a practice that situates itself between image making and performance, these works create characters that are familiar types from the Hollywood playbook. Notwithstanding the wigs, costumes and make up, in these early works Sherman did not stray so far from her youthful self. In the years since she has explored ever more elaborate creations of persona, including the Clown series of the early 2000s in which she almost vanishes, unrecognisable under the grotesque white-face make up.
In this latest series of works, Sherman returns to the movie star, this time with the full pathos of age. The artist herself is in her sixties now, and has spoken candidly about what this means for her work: “Now it is not like adding wrinkles to look older; it is using the wrinkles I already have to say something else. What is disturbing is not seeing more lines on my face but seeing that the range of possibilities of what I can do is much more limited. I guess I could go for looking like I was 100 if I wanted to, but looking younger than 50 is now a stretch.”
All of our lives have moments of transition, moments when realisation dawns that we have entered a different phase and our sense of self has to be adjusted accordingly. It is rarely a comfortable experience. The women in these new works express a depth of emotion that comes with this realisation. Though silent, one imagines each of them would have a lot to say. Sherman’s work has always carried a powerful narrative element. She prompts the viewer to bring their own storytelling to each work, filling in the details of how this woman got to be there, looking like she does. Coco Chanel said “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.” These days, it might be true to say of some women that at 50 they get the face they can afford to pay for.
The lonely dames in these pictures have perfect hair and make-up, good jaw-lines and great costumes. The visual vocabulary is that of the studio publicity shot – although some of them look more like they are in character than others. But with all of them, the truth of the work is in the look in their eyes. For all the glossy presentation, the eyes speak of vulnerability that comes of the struggle to maintain the image, the hard-bitten toughness born of bitter disappointments, the silent tragedy of humiliations suffered, the resigned acceptance of ageing. It’s easy to supply the details from our own biographies.
With these works Sherman uses the schmaltzy aesthetics of 1940s and 50s films to make her point about the brutal emphasis on appearance in our own era. In earlier works she has parodied fashions in plastic surgery, the trout pouts and implants, but these new works are more generous to their subjects. She is sympathetic to these ageing talents in the face of unforgiving high-definition, when in spite of forty years of feminism; women still collude in the commercial production of caricatural femininity. There is such evident strength of character in each individual Sherman has created here, such subtle delineation of personality, more than anything else they elicit empathy.
It’s brilliant. It’s on until September. Don’t miss it.
And with that we wish you all a wonderful summer break. Dispatches will resume in September. Thank you for reading.
Sprüth Magers, 7A Grafton Street , London, W1S 4EJ. Open Tuesday – Saturday, 10.00 – 18.00. Exhibition continues until 1 September 2018. www.spruethmagers.com