Lessons We Can Learn From Cindy Sherman

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Untitled #581, 2016 & Untitled #574, 2016Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures

As the shape-shifting artist prepares to open a new exhibition in New York, we extract some lessons from her oeuvre

At 62, Cindy Sherman is a cultural touchstone and a beloved presence in art. For 40 years, the New York-based artist has played a variety of feminine guises in her inimitable photographic series, from girl Fridays to femme fatales, Old Master portrait subjects to ageing socialites. Revelling in the trickery afforded by make-up, dress and lighting, she is a skilled performer with a uniquely expressive face, as capable of channeling the cool wariness of a Hitchcock heroine as the desperation of a deadbeat clown, in the process delicately destabilising the construction of those very identities.  

She has long been drawn to the language of cinema in her work, from the Untitled Film Stills, which so memorably suggested the promotional photos from noir and French new wave films, all the way through to her brand new series, which take their cue from 1920s Hollywood publicity photos. Next week, New York's Metro Pictures Gallery will showcase a series of Sherman's latest works, while in June, The Broad will mount a major survey of her oeuvre titled Imitation of Life, after the 1959 Douglas Sirk melodrama which famously explored the identity crisis of a young woman 'passing' as white. 

Her work is playful, disturbing, humorous, allusive and ambiguous. Here, we try to learn some lessons from it. 

1. Every sartorial choice is a choice that reflects but also projects an identity
Like most children, Cindy Sherman liked to play dress up. Unlike most of us, she not only never grew out of it, she made it a central process in her work. In interviews, she has described dressing up as a way of getting attention from her much older siblings; a photo from 1966 shows a 12-year-old Sherman and friend posing on a suburban street dressed up as old ladies. It was in college that she first started photographing herself in a variety of guises, deepening her interest in role play both in front of and away from the camera (she described once going to an art opening with padding under her shirt, pretending to be pregnant.) Her costumes are sourced from flea markets and thrift stores, her wigs are rented and she is a skilled make-up and lighting artist. Every detail in her work is considered, from the orange gingham skirt worn by a supine ingenue to the incongruously youthful candy pink manicure on a fading society dame. She understands the alchemy of image-making intuitively, which is perhaps why brands from MAC to Comme des Garçons have clamoured to work with her.

2. I want to be alone
Barring the odd collaborative effort, Sherman has always been a one-woman production company. Just as she projects multiple identities in front of the camera, she herself plays every role behind it: director, set maker, lighting designer, wardrobe mistress, and editor, to name just a few. Getting into character can take time and requires a gradual loss of self-consciousness, so it's natural not to want anyone around. Beyond the props, she uses just a camera and a mirror to achieve her images. Roughly nine years ago, she began shooting digitally, enabling her to tweak as she goes. 

3. Don't go looking for the real Cindy Sherman
Sherman has always been adamant that she is not in the photographs she makes (though a recent New York Times interview says that after years of therapy "she is now willing to see aspects of herself even in her early photos"). Still, journalists have long sought to locate the "real" Cindy in her photos, as if each shot were a fragment of her own identity. In the handful of interviews she has given over the years, she strongly denies any narcissistic undercurrent in her work; if anything, she is effacing herself. As for the way her work has been subsumed into feminist discourse, Sherman has been candid about avoiding any overt theorising: "The work is what it is and hopefully it's seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff." Still, she has said that her "centrefolds" – horizontal images of a variety of characters, all 'played' by Sherman looking variously frightened and feverish – aimed to disturb a certain voyeuristic gaze, and the large format of her photos can be seen as a reaction to the gargantuan proportions of certain "macho" painters' work."

4. Hollywood is the thread that runs through her work
As she pointed out in a 1994 BBC documentary, Sherman's was the first generation to grow up steeped in the common, charged imagery disseminated through film and TV. "I guess movies are probably one of my biggest influences," she revealed. Her Film Stills brilliantly suggested the B-movies she almost certainly grew up watching, be it sub-Hitchcock mysteries or lesser known Nouvelle Vague efforts. After the Film Stills, Sherman produced colour photographs starring herself, in front of rear-screen projections – by that time an outmoded special effect that was favoured, in fact, by Hitchcock – and later staged a show inspired by Hollywood headshots in Los Angeles just before the 2000 Academy Awards. Horror is one of her favourite genres and her own attempt at a horror movie, 1997's Office Killer, so far her only film, was a goofy, gory riot.

5. Her influence is everywhere
Sherman started out in college as a painter but it was through the camera that she found her artistic voice. At the time, photography was a relatively uncharted territory in art, and for that reason, it has been suggested, it called out particularly to female artists. Her influence on the medium has been profound. She made headlines in 2011 when one of her photographs from 1981 sold for $3.8 million, then a record price for a photograph. And it is fair to say that her work predicted the rise and ubiquity, as well as the artifice, of the self-made imagery now swirling around in cyberspace. But as she told Harper's Bazaar recently, "I don't take selfies. I hardly ever use my phone for photographs. It's really hard to remember to even take a picture of something."

Cindy Sherman runs from May 5 until June 11, 2016 at Metro Pictures Gallery, New York; Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life runs from June 11 to October 2nd, 2016 at The Broad, Los Angeles.