Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA: Bump It With a Trumpet!

A career retrospective of Cindy Sherman opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art in March, and it set off quite a critical kerfluffle, partly because the admiring New Yorker Magazine art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, threw down the gauntlet with his first paragraph in writing about the show:

The first sentence of the first wall text in the Cindy Sherman retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art reads, "Masquerading as a myriad of characters, Cindy Sherman (American, born 1954) invents personas and tableaus that examine the construction of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography." The images do no such thing, of course. They hang on walls.

After a funny description of ArtSpeak and the many critical attempts over the decades to explain what Sherman has been up to with the photographic portaits of herself in a multiplicity of made-up, bewigged, outrageously dressed guises, Schjeldahl writes:

"She is remarkably tolerant of interviewers who keep asking her what she means, as if, like any true artist, she hadn't already answered in the only way possible for her: in the work. But the mysteries are irreducible. Alive in the experience of viewers who reject being told what to think, they qualify Sherman, to my mind as the strongest and finest American artist of her time."

There was a backlash to such high profile praise, such as Jed Perl's "The Irredeemably Boring Egotism of Cindy Sherman" in The New Republic, a feminist academic take by Nadine Lemmon at Brickhaus called "THE SHERMAN PHENOMENA: The Image of Theory or A Foreclosure of Dialectical Reasoning?", and Chris Knipp, who wrote a post entitled "Cindy Sherman is Great -- But at What?"

Sherman's art is very much a one-note gimmick, but the photos are surprisingly potent. Sherman creates a universe that is immediately recognizable as hers, and you won't look at the world in quite the same way afterwards, a quality she shares in common with the painter Frida Kahlo and the photographer Diane Arbus.

Thanks to critics like Schjeldahl and others, Sherman has become rich and famous. This makes her latest series, where she turns herself into a series of malevolent looking, aging society women, in huge wall-sized prints, seem less fantastical than her other creations. She looks like she knows this world all too well. The exhibit has moved to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in its first outing on the road before heading for Brazil.

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