A pop quiz on Cindy Sherman

As a student I missed a test question about one of my favorite artists, and it led me on a weird journey.

Untitled (Self-Portrait with Sun Tan), 2003, by Cindy Sherman

When I was a student at Portland State University, I took a course in the history of photography. It was a class that perfectly linked my twin loves, film and art history. It was also the sort of class with weekly multiple choice quizzes. One week, after exploring the work of Cindy Sherman — hero, icon, genius! — I came across a perplexing multiple-choice question about her. The question asked us to classify Sherman’s photographs as one of the following: portraits, self-portraits, stereotypes, or constructions. I stared at this question for a very, very long time.

Cindy Sherman famously uses herself as the subject of all of her photographs, so “self-portraits” at first seemed obvious. I almost checked that box, but then I hesitated, because Sherman’s intention is not actually to play herself in her photos but to disappear into another character. So perhaps they were portraits, of people real and imagined, with Sherman’s own likeness (mediated by celluloid), as the medium. After all, many certainly conform to the Western norms of portraiture, with subjects frequently depicted from the waist up, posing and acknowledging the camera. Yes. “Portraits” was the answer. But wait: didn’t they also play equally with stereotypes? The wealthy countess, the mall rat, the dewy starlet. Sherman embodied all of these caricatures and more. “Stereotypes” had to be right. As for “constructions,” well, that was clearly a throwaway; lazy quiz filler to fool those who hadn’t done the reading. Every artwork is a construction, is it not? “Constructions!” Please.

Untitled #92, 1981, by Cindy Sherman

I kept staring at the question, and it stared back.

Untitled #92, 1981, by Cindy Sherman

Portraits.

Self-portraits.

Stereotypes.

Constructions.

(It’s weird to be quizzed on a living artist; someone who is still making work. What if I happened to know Cindy Sherman and I just straight-up asked her? Would she even know the answer? Probably not, I decided.)

Untitled, 2004, by Cindy Sherman

I got the multiple choice question wrong. I emailed the professor, saying the question was totally ridiculous. Sherman’s work cannot be classified as only one of the four options, I wrote, as they are all equally at play in her art.

The professor had this to say: “While I do agree with you that all of these issues are important in Sherman’s work, the best possible answer is ‘constructions’ since some of her works are not portraits, the argument can be made that they are both self-portraits and not self-portraits, and only some of her works deal with stereotypes (for example, the later history works are recreations, not stereotypes).”

There was really no point in arguing with the professor. (At university the student is always wrong. It is the opposite of being a customer.) Instead I became more and more intrigued with Sherman.

When asked to take a photograph in the style of an artist from the course, I took a photo in the style of Cindy Sherman: caked in makeup, with lipstick on my teeth, a fake fur coat draped over a summer dress for some reason. I wore fake lashes, colored the inside of my nostrils black, and put my eyebrows a few centimeters higher than where they were meant to go. I gathered all the lamps in my house for that “studio lighting” look. It was simultaneously a portrait and a self-portrait; a stereotype, and — yes — a construction.

Construction #1 (after Cindy Sherman), by Anna Weltner, 2017
Construction #2 (after Cindy Sherman), by Anna Weltner, 2017
Construction #3 (after Cindy Sherman), by Anna Weltner, 2017
Construction #4 (after Cindy Sherman), by Anna Weltner, 2017

I thought recreating Sherman’s process would help me understand her work more, and it did, but not necessarily in the all the ways I expected.

I am a very fair-skinned person, and recreating a tanned look like one of Sherman’s “Hollywood/Hampton types” was difficult. No matter how much bronzer I put on, I still appeared washed out under the makeshift studio lights. My friend (and makeup artist) Isabela kept looking at the pictures and going, “Ugh, you still look normal!” and applying more extreme shades. It is almost impossible for me to appear tan.

Happy with the shoot, I was editing my “constructions” in Lightroom and thinking how I still looked sort of pale when I had a really awful idea of something to Google.

Untitled, 1976, by Cindy Sherman

I was horrified at the discovery that one of my most cherished artists had impersonated Black people in her early photographs, but also at the way I’d sort of intuited this fact simply by imitating Sherman’s process. It had occurred to me that Sherman’s portraits, self-portraits, stereotypes and/or constructions bordered on mockery of their subjects. “But where does an artist draw the line?” I’d planned to ask in my thought-provoking final paper for the semester, which I had already decided would be on Cindy Sherman. Anyway, I had found the line. And recently, I found that paper too (see below).

I am still highly influenced by Sherman, in an almost subconscious way. I’m a filmmaker now, and in my current project, Goitre, I use myself as the model to explore the representation of women in art history, through the lens of one specific malady.

Venus at a Mirror, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1614–1615
Goitre (film still), by Anna Weltner, 2020

While setting up each shoot I didn’t even think the name “Cindy Sherman” once, though I see now her influence is undeniable. I have, for obvious reasons, omitted the cherub and the African maidservant from my Rubens, however. Some aspects of art history just aren’t worth repeating.

Anyway, here’s that paper.

The Stereotype and Cindy Sherman

When American artist Cindy Sherman made her series “Untitled Film Stills,” a collection of 69 untitled photographs shot between 1977 and 1980, she (perhaps accidentally) struck a cultural nerve. The black-and-white photographs, each starring the artist herself in various guises, showed invented scenes from non-existent movies. The result was a kind of uncanny valley of visual reference: The images were enigmatic and mysterious, yet they quoted so well from the language of cinema that they struck the viewer with a faint yet persistent feeling of recognition (“Hang on a minute, I know I’ve seen that movie!). In truth, the images were constructed entirely from Sherman’s imagination — yet they were influenced so thoroughly by the cinematic mode as to fit neatly in the brain beside lingering memory-images of B movies, Hitchcockian mysteries, and French New Wave films.

Untitled Film Still #58, by Cindy Sherman

Sherman herself says she didn’t anticipate the now-obvious interpretation of the series as a critical examination of the way women are portrayed and typecast on film (the ingénue, the femme fatale, the matron, the secretary, and so on). But the “Film Stills,” and the greater portion of her work that followed, would continue to critique the gaze of cinema and of image-makers in general — so often male, wealthy, and white — throughout history. For the most part, Sherman’s work is a rebuttal to the traditional ways of visualizing women on screen or on canvas. But her work is not always blameless, either. There can be trouble when you try to look like someone else — someone poorer than you, for example, or much older, or not as sophisticated as you are.

In fact, Sherman’s occasional missteps in this area show us just how difficult it is for an artist to invent and embody a character without resorting to offensive stereotype.

It’s perhaps to avoid further typecasting that Sherman has not titled individual pieces or bodies of work for several decades, though writers and museum curators have often informally dubbed groups of work: “The Horizontals,” “The Clowns, “The Fairy Tales.”

Speaking of a series of “Hollywood/Hampton types,” she showed in Los Angeles, (a body of work featuring tastelessly wealthy, garishly dressed, buck-toothed, often absurdly fake-tanned women, spot-lit and photographed against flat colored backgrounds) the artist recalls that “…I’ve been kind of criticized because people thought I was making too much fun of the characters I was portraying … they thought I was just making fun of these Hollywood types. As if, you know, here she comes from the East Coast and who does she think she is, or something. I kind of like those characters too; it’s not like I didn’t like them and I’m going to make fun of these women.”

Untitled #408, by Cindy Sherman, 2002

This example highlights the inherent difficulties of artistic representation. For one thing, where is the line between having fun and making fun? Secondly, it’s much easier to identify a potentially harmful stereotype in an artist’s work than it is to pin down their intent in crafting it. (Perhaps these women look absurd and ridiculous because society’s standards of beauty are on them are absurd and ridiculous, etc.) And lastly, it shows how written and visual languages are not always compatible. All Sherman did was wordlessly portray a character; I’m the one who put the labels “tasteless” and “garish” on her, cruelly pointing out her buck teeth or orange skin. If we are to take as sincere Sherman’s assertion that she “kind of like[s]” these characters, then suddenly my words seem much more offensive than her images.

Of course, Sherman is smarter than this. She is a master at reading, crafting, and subverting subtle visual cues. Whatever she may say, Sherman’s complicated relationship to a character is certainly much deeper than kind of liking or kind of disliking.

The artist, who came to prominence in the 1980s, belongs to a loose group of artists (among them Robert Longo, Barbara Kruger, and Louise Lawler) designated “The Pictures Generation” for their emergence at a time when mass media and advertising were infiltrating American culture at an unprecedented rate. Her work is a direct response to the nonverbal messages about women we’re asked to accept every day.

Blake Gopnik wrote of Sherman in The New York Times last year, “taken one by one, the ‘Film Stills’ confirm the reading that has made them famous: that a woman’s identity is formed, and limited, by the images she’s seen of other women. That is, a woman learned how to be a secretary from movies as much as from business school. Not many images could teach her about being a C.E.O.”

But Sherman’s work goes beyond simply identifying gender roles. Her pieces are notable for the fine, superficial details that stick out of them — what Barthes would call the punctum. These are the little things women may be unaware of when they dress and style themselves but which other people notice right away. In one, a too-narrow halter top results in a touch of side-boob; in another, the wire of a bra creates a comically unnatural profile. Often, her characters fail to dress their age, go far too heavy on the rouge, draw lipstick far outside of their natural lip-lines. Yet often we sympathize with them, aware of how media-perpetuated beauty standards are always at odds with the realities of individual bodies, the demands of hard work, or simply the slow progression of time. Crucially, Sherman lets us see the superficiality of her constructions. We quickly identify the caked-on makeup, the prosthetic noses and breasts, and the eyebrows covered in white powder to allow new ones to be drawn in. We know the characters are imaginary. At the same time, Sherman’s convincing expressions, paired with little touches of individualism (a funky necklace or unique hairstyle), may remind the viewer of someone they know — bringing back fond memories, perhaps, of a favorite piano teacher, a grandmother, or a therapist. Sherman’s ability to change her face and shape-shift into countless new identities for the camera allows a measure of escapism from the obligations of being one person in particular.

But assuming another’s likeness without due consideration also brings fresh hazards. A 2016 retrospective of the artist’s work at Los Angeles’ Broad Museum included an early “Bus Rider” series which epitomizes such problems. Impersonating everyday people one sees on public transportation, Sherman appears several times in blackface. In the accompanying text placed beside the images, the artist explained that “when I made this body of work, my intention was to be inclusive, and the bus riders I was basing my work on were both black and white … I was 22, naïve, and unaware of the potential offense in these characters.”

Here, though, offensiveness is not a matter of subjectivity, as it is in the case of the Hollywood/Hampton types and other series. Blackface, given its painful history, is an objectively bad idea, and these early photographs are Sherman’s least successful and most ill-conceived works. Photographed in black and white, the makeup appears an unrealistic charcoal-black, echoing the color white actors would historically apply to their skin to mock black people. Sherman has not used cosmetics to alter her features as she so often does in other instances, so underneath the dark makeup the characters still look like…Cindy Sherman. Strangely, the only objectively offensive works in the retrospective are also the only ones in which the artist does not seem to truly disappear.

These works, and the negative reactions they inevitably elicit, show the need for extreme caution in representing people different to oneself. For all her sensitivity to (and skilled subversion of) the stereotypes perpetuated by films, television, and advertising, Sherman herself has not always been so sensitive to the ways in which her own works might recall, even perpetuate, harmful stereotypes. Such pitfalls, while rare, underscore the need for visual artists to use their influence thoughtfully. The photographic image is powerful, if blunt, object, and Sherman — not unlike the advertising agencies, art directors, photographers, filmmakers, and other “mass-media generators” whose ideas she so often challenges — is a master image-maker. ∆

Bibliography

1. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2010.

2. The Broad. Accessed July 18, 2017. https://www.thebroad.org/art/cindy-sherman. “Cindy Sherman Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. Accessed July 18, 2017. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-sherman-cindy.htm.

3. Cindy Sherman in “Transformation”. Performed by Cindy Sherman. USA: Art 21, 2009. Accessed July 18, 2017. https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s5/cindy-sherman-in-transformation-segment/.

4. Frank, Priscilla. “”The Obvious Problem With Blackface And The Art World’s White Gaze.” The Huffington Post. August 31, 2016. Accessed July 18, 2017.

5. Gopnik, Blake. “Cindy Sherman Takes On Aging (Her Own).” The New York Times. April 21, 2016. Accessed July 18, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/arts/design/cindy-sherman-takes-on-aging-her-own.html.

Non-fiction filmmaker, writer, and editor.

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