Cindy Sherman’s Subversion of Beauty

Sherman, who has been photographing herself for over five decades, continues to challenge the ways we see and depict the female subject

Maria Penaranda // Arts & Culture Editor 

To call Cindy Sherman a photographer would be inadequate. She’s so much more than that: art director, makeup artist, costumer, actress—Sherman takes on all roles to create her portraits, an auteur in the truest sense of the word. For over five decades, Sherman has been fashioning and photographing herself as various characters, and a retrospective of her work is now on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery. 

Never static or one-dimensional, Sherman’s characters are impossible to contain in a singular trope or stereotype. Since the beginning of her art practice and still today, Sherman has always chosen to leave her photographs untitled so viewers have no preconceived notion of what each character should be. Whether she plays a bardot-like vamp; an ageing, old-money trophy wife; or a terrifying clown, it’s the details of her photographs that set her work apart. Her nuanced use of makeup, costuming, prosthetics and facial expression prevent any literal reading of her photographs, inviting you instead into the malleable, fantastical worlds of her characters. 

Cindy Sherman Untitled #216, 1989 
chromogenic print 
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Sherman’s early work as a student at the State University College of Buffalo in the 70’s opens the retrospective, and demonstrates an early interest in the artistic practice of physical transformation through clothing and makeup. “I’m disappearing in the world, rather than trying to reveal anything,” Sherman said in an interview with WSJ Magazine. “It’s about obliterating, erasing myself and becoming something else.”

One of these early works, an animated film nicknamed ‘Dolls Clothes’ by curators, features Sherman as a paper doll come to life, taking on and off different paper outfits. The film seems to underscore the retrospective as a whole, referencing how Sherman’s artistic practice of assuming identities is rooted in this process of dressing-up and trying-on.

The Untitled Film Stills series, Sherman’s most popular work, is shown in its entirety within the retrospective. It’s a series of black and white self-portraits of Sherman as ambiguous female figures, and was inspired by 40’s and 50’s European film stills of women who, as Sherman has described, looked “blank.” The women in the photos are at once familiar and empty, embodying normative feminine beauty, but caught within in-between moments of expression. Perhaps it’s because the photographs are so generic that they feel so beautiful. “I know I was not consciously aware of this thing the ‘male gaze,’” she has said of the series, “I suppose unconsciously, or semi-consciously at best, I was wrestling with some sort of turmoil of my own about understanding women.” 

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #17, 1978 
silver gelatin print 
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York
Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #48, 1979 
silver gelatin print 
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

If Sherman grapples with the male gaze in the film stills, then her ‘Centerfold’ series collides with it head-on. The series was commissioned in 1981 by Artforum and takes on the wide-format of a magazine. In it, an intrusive camera looks down upon a series of women who anxiously gaze off and away from the eye of the lens. The series repulsed many when it was first released, deemed anti-feminist because it captured vulnerable-looking women, mimicking the posing and framing of pornography magazines. Then Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy refused to publish the images (the only time she ever did so), fearing they would be misunderstood by the public.  Sherman said of the series: “The horizontal pictures I did were meant to resemble in format a centrefold, but in content a man who was opening up the magazine and feel like the violator that they would be. I’m trying to make someone feel bad for having certain expectations.”

It’s strange to consider how critics had such low expectations of Sherman as an artist and feminist upon seeing the centrefold series. Since the beginning of her practice, and still today, Sherman’s has consistently challenged the ways we look at and depict women.

Cindy Sherman Cover Girl (Vogue), 1975/2011 
silver gelatin prints 
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

In her ‘Pink Robe’ series, which was created shortly after the centerfolds, Sherman plays a nude model in between being photographed. Her hostile expression and the increasing darkness of the images imply a resistance to the male gaze.

The ‘Pink Robe’ series is the last time we see Sherman embody a character with normative feminine beauty. As her practice progresses, her characters become increasingly grotesque and absurd. But among the sickly women in couture, clowns, and mole-ridden renaissance models, her ‘Society Portraits’ are perhaps the most jarring. These images depict rich, ageing women posed with their symbols of wealth. “People have said she’s sort of referencing people who are collecting her. Sort-of these rich society women who would own her work, for example, or who she would see at parties,” said Zoe Chan, the exhibition’s Assistant Curator. “She’s referencing traditions of portraiture once again, where you sort of show your wealth and you’re not afraid or you’re not embarrassed of your wealth, and you just stand in front of it.” 

Cindy Sherman Untitled #466, 2008
chromogenic print 
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

There’s something both hilarious and terrifying about these women who have so clearly lost their normative beauty, and yet strangely continue to define themselves by it. In an interview with Paper magazine, Sherman said of the images: “To me, it’s a little scary when I see myself. And it’s especially scary when I see myself in these older women.” 

In a world where women are increasingly defined by images of perfection on social media, Sherman’s body of work feels particularly relevant. Through framing, costume, and expression, her images make the codes of portraiture and female representation—ubiquitous, and yet, so often intangible—visible.

Cindy Sherman Untitled #588, 2016/18 
dye sublimation metal print 
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Cindy Sherman at the Vancouver Art Gallery runs until March 8, 2020.

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