THE OTHER SIDE
Photographer Cindy Sherman has built a long career around dressing as other people without ever revealing much of her true self, discovers Darryn King
In 1975, in her third year of college, Cindy Sherman created Untitled #479, the piece she still regards as her first serious work of art: 23 stills that, shot by shot, track one character’s gradual transformation from androgynous mystery to glamorous, beautyspotted, cigarette-wielding vamp.
In a single class assignment, Sherman announced and conveyed the themes that would preoccupy a lifetime behind and in front of the camera. In the four decades since, she has played starlets and harlots, centrefold models and housewives, fairytale characters and fashion victims. She has masqueraded as a Madonna, as Marilyn Monroe and a creature that author Karl Ove Knausgaard christened “the Pig-Human”.
Toasting Sherman at a gala at the Hammer Museum in 2012, Steve Martin said: “On Halloween, Cindy Sherman goes as herself.”
John Waters has called her a “female female impersonator”.
It’s shocking then, in its way, to see Sherman, 62, undisguised — looking purposefully nondescript in a sensible blouse and pants. Or maybe part of the point of Sherman’s work, as has been suggested, is that a woman is always in disguise.
“I’m dressed up for this,” Sherman says, smiling. “Normally I’d really be a slob.”
Considering her motley creations, it’s probably inevitable that the so-called real Cindy Sherman comes off, as Miranda July has put it, as more like a “dignified documentarian than a crazy performance artist”.
Sherman acknowledges the reality is often a let-down for people. “They could also think that as a result I’m not so interesting and that my work is where I let loose,” she has said. “That’s probably true.”
Today, Sherman has been working in her ninth-floor studio that occupies a gleaming Winka Dubbeldam building in West SoHo. (She lives in a penthouse apartment upstairs, with a parrot.) There’d be views of the Hudson River if you could see them: by the time I arrive, late in the afternoon, she has spent the whole day indoors, applying finishing touches to a new show.
“I hear it’s very nice outside, right?” she asks. “Warm?”
One of Sherman’s workstations is lined with bald Styrofoam heads. Curling plastic fingers sprout out from the edge of a tabletop. There’s a rack of costumes and wigs, and cheap fake plastic moustaches and brows in packets probably plucked off a rack in Chinatown. Photographs of women — silent movie stars, fashion models, celebrities — adorn every wall. In the centre of the room is the well-lit, green screen-backed space where Sherman’s characters materialise and mutate.
Sherman is her own model, art director, costume designer and wardrobe stylist, make-up artist and hairstylist. She used to develop her own pictures, too — now she touches them up digitally. She has been a one-woman show for most of her career, having found it strange to be in character with an assistant in the room. Nothing came of attempts to enlist family and friends as models, and in her one foray as a movie director, in 1997’s Office Killer, she found herself even less suited to the co-operative endeavour of filmmaking.
Often she finds herself shooting late into the night and sometimes entirely abandons a day’s work if a character reminds her too much of something she has done in the past — or of herself. Where a single contact sheet of hers was once crowded by diverse characters, these days she takes about 100 images of a new character, taking the time to refine and get properly acquainted with each one.
“Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. I keep trying different wigs, different costumes, changing make-up. Sometimes at 9.30 I’ll be like, forget it, it’s not going to happen, I’m over her!”
It’s a busy time. After her coming New York exhibition at her gallery, Metro Pictures, where she’ll show her first body of work since 2012, she has a late-career retrospective at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane on May 28. Next month she will open the first special exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles.
Sherman feels depleted after months of intense activity such as these. “I get sick of it: sick of make-up, sick of costumes. I need to take some time off from being in front of a camera.”
Her pictures are elaborate fictions rather than self-portraits. For someone who has made images of herself continuously for four decades, Sherman has cunningly avoided being the subject of her own work. She mostly hates having her photo taken by someone else — “I never know what to do with myself” — and dislikes the concept of selfies. “There’s something wrong with a culture that’s into that whole thing.” When she was dating David Byrne she found his preoccupation with his fame and his fans distasteful. “To be perfectly really is into his celebrity,” she says.
It was Sherman’s fear of self-exposure that led her to turn the lens on herself in the first place. In college, it was a spring tradition for students to go on a naked romp through the trees and snap photographs of each other. “It was horrifying to me,” Sherman says with a laugh. “But one of our early projects was to confront something. I thought, OK, maybe I have to confront that issue.” Sherman took a series of photographs of herself in the nude, disfiguring her body with photographic effects.
“That was when I really started taking pictures of myself.”
When she enrolled in the art course at the State University College in Buffalo, New York, her intention had been to pursue drawing and painting, with the vague idea she might be a courtroom illustrator. “Disjointed and all over the place,” is how she now describes her efforts as a painter. “There was no theme, no passion or vision in what I was painting.”
In her second year, Sherman failed her technically focused introductory photography class. It was her third-year photography professor, Barbara Jo Revelle, who encouraged her to work on the ideas instead.
Sherman had discovered the work of Chris Burden and Vito Acconci, who used their bodies as the raw material of their art. At the same time, Sherman had an intensifying obsession with experimenting with make-up, fashion and the malleability of her own appearance.
As a child, Sherman had kept a trunk beneath her bed overflowing with dresses and thrift store finds. Playing dress-ups and creating characters was an attention-seeking strategy, she says now. “I think it had to do with being the youngest of five kids. There was a big gap between me and the next one, so they were a whole separate family by the time I came around. It was kind of like, maybe if you don’t like me this way … how about this way?”
Sherman guesses that she was about 11 when she dressed up as an old lady and strolled the neighbourhood with a friend in geriatric postures. She still remembers the thrill of apparently fooling a neighbour. “I’m sure he was humouring us. He was acting like he really honest, he
Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #462 ( 2007-08) at the Queensland Art Gallery, left; the artist at work in New York, below