Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 03, 2012 11:37 am 
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Fake grande dames, grotesques, and clowns

PETER SCHJELDAHL makes grandiose generalizations. Since he's been chief art critic of The New Yorker for fourteen years this is to be expected. It's what leading art critics do. So we should therefore not be surprised that Schjeldahl has chosen the current (February 2012) 35-year retrospective of the work of Cindy Sherman at MoMA as occasion to declare her "the strongest and finest American artist of her time." Didn't he just say something like that about Willem De Kooning? Oh, but De Kooning is dead. Schjeldahl isn't contradicting himself. De Kooning is different. He is "arguably" (a little wesel-word modesty here for an even grander statement) "the greatest American painter." Every time there's a big MoMA retrospective, will we get one of these grand declarations?

Now Cindy Sherman, who has for decades photographed herself in various poses and guises, is obviously not a painter. But is she a photographer? There's the rub. She is not. Starting out in the Seventies, she seized upon the approach of that time and became a conceptual artist. But her interpretation of that way of making art is a narrow one. You may see it as ingenious in its economy. But it is also repetitious and grindingly egocentric. "Myself am the subject"? -- like Montaigne? No, because we learn nothing about Cindy Sherman, perhaps thankfully. Her poses provide displays of her skill at playing make-believe, but virtually no insight into her inner life.

The fact of Cindy Sherman "arguably" taking on the role of "finest artist of her time" doesn't mean that since De Kooning photography has taken over the central role formerly played in the world of art by painting. The surge in interest in photography over the last fifty years might make us expect that. But it could not happen. And Cindy Sherman would not be the one to make it happen. She offers neither the complexity of staged work (as in Joel-Peter Witkin) or the richness of found worlds (street photography; photojournalism) that we find in photography at its best. Her photographs, without which her work as an artist would not exist, nonetheless exist only as glossy records of her schticks. Her product is herself and her medium is herself -- her face and body, with numerous props, prostheses, and appendages. This is a narrowing field of operation. Not a flaw in itself, paring down being a method that can heighten the profundity of art, as in Beckett, Giacometti or Morandi. But if her aim is to go on presenting an unendingly rich panoply of personas, she may be hitting a wall. Because a young person can be made up as an older one, but it's harder and harder for an aging face to be disguised as anything but an aging face. Thus the final room of Sherman's show with large formal portraits of "socialites" or rich ladies. There she looks more and more like an old Jewish woman with a wrinkly face. Her range of ethnicities seems to have narrowed and so has the range of expressions. They are shrinking to a pout.

Sherman exemplifies the late modern superstar artist mold. She found a powerful schtick and stuck to it, delivering more and more fabulous, flashy shockers. She didn't hit the wall like a Rothko. Multiplying disguises seemed to provide rich possibilities. She has had dry periods. Hence the roomful of giant images where there's no Cindy, just crab claws or pubic hair wreathed in a background of lurid colors. Essentially all Cindy Sherman has ever done is photograph herself (or have herself photographed), and even in those grotesques she is present by her absence. It's not a new stage, just the same stage with Cindy replaced by crazy props.


And then she came back, Cindy in clown face, Cindy in socialite face. Schjeldahl is right: her images contain both mockery and compassion. Indeed like any clown face.

Conceptual art can be contemplative, cool, elegant, and though-provoking. That was never Cindy Sherman's way. Indeed, what is the concept? Her method is conceptual in a somewhat mechanical way: she creates artificial setups, stages and records non-events. Rather than thought-provoking, she is cringe-inducing, intentionally so. And she gets her effect. Her effect is that of the pagliaccio, the funny-sad, grotesque made-up creature that gets a cringe, a wow, a sigh, a smile, a sob. And then the acrobats and the elephants enter the ring, and all eyes turn to them. She is an artist who offends to make a strong impression. (That's the kind of "strongest" artist she is.) And the stronger it is the more repetitious and the more forgettable. She is also an artist whose work provides diminishing returns in the viewing, because there is no mastery of a medium to enjoy. Unless the medium is her face and her wardrobe. But aren't we all that, especially those of the fair sex?

But Schjeldahl has a point. He often does. That is why I pay attention to what he says. He may be right. Cindy Sherman may be the great "American artist" of these times. However that is a commentary on the times.

Let's look at the New Yorker review's intro:

“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.” Such boilerplate language has trailed Sherman since her emergence, more than thirty years ago. Sherman’s art—photographs that are like one-frame movies, which she directs and acts in—demand special explanation. Alive in the experience of viewers who reject being told what to think, they qualify Sherman as the strongest and finest American artist of her time. The show is theatrical. A hundred and seventy-one pictures hang in exquisitely lit rooms, on differently colored walls. It is chiefly a calculated sequence of visual knockouts. Picture by picture, we are thrown back into discontinuous feelings that she quickens and manipulates as deftly as a Hitchcock or a Kubrick.

Certainly a sequence of visual knockouts is what you get. But this is an injustice to Hitchcock and Kubrick. To begin with, as Fran Lebowitz pointed out in another context, there's not such thing as "'a' Hitchcock or 'a' Kubrick." There is only Hitchcock or Kubrick. Besides, these are not in any sense movies. The images are still, after all. One-frame movies" do not exist. They are staged photographs. And Cindy has no monopoly on those even if nobody else has been granted a series of big rooms at the new giant MoMA to show them. These one-off pot shots are, as visuals, as camera work, disappointingly simple. They are also lacking in rich texture, photographic subtlety, depth. The effect, however elaborate, is still that of masquerade, of dress-up, playing in the attic. The photographs are far more richly and elaborately staged in the case of better photographers, or artists who are more truly photographers, like Jerry Uelsmann or Joel-Peter Witkin. Others in the group are William Wegman, Barbara Kasten, James Casebere, Joyce Neimanas, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Laurie Simmons. Cindy Sherman is a respectable member of this group, however self-centered and repetitious. But to consider her more important than the others is to reward shameless attention-grabbing over quality. Still photography can give great pleasure. I've been long excited by it and a practitioner of it myself. But I think Hockney was right when he explained that he made his multi-facet photo-collages because still photographs don't in themselves have the complexity that painting (especially experiments like futurism and cubism) provides to the eye by showing multiple angles, the circling-around that the eye can do but a still camera can't. Hitchcock and Kubrick made motion pictures. Big difference. Sherman's shots are like sketches for a wardrobe designer preparing a character, notes for Edith Head. They may say more than a thousand words (a thousand words isn't as much as it sounds like) but they don't say as much as a thousand sequenced images in a motion picture. So no, "we are thrown back into discontinuous feelings that she quickens and manipulates as deftly as a Hitchcock or a Kubrick," is just hype.

Nonetheless, let's give Cindy her due. She has indeed created a jaw-dropping range of poses. She is a prodigious, patient, tireless performer. And when she poses herself done up as a figure from renaissance painting, say, and recreates a painterly background, her image verges on beautiful. And when, more often, it does not, its vulgarity can sometimes be fun. Till the elephants -- or the next big flashy side show artists pursuing a new schtick -- come along to entertain the decadent, bored crowd.


Unfortunately she pays too little attention to the quality of her photographs. This is the main reason why it is hard to consider her a photographer in the way that Uelsman, Witkin, Meatyard, Wegman, and the others clearly are. It's as if she got so into the schticks that she forgot about the photography aspect. The early black and white images actually seem more effective rather than less because they not only seem more like photographs (rather than merely big glossy records of installations) but also make more natural use of backgrounds like skyscrapers or an urban river. (Black and white backgrounds fit with grafted on foreground portraits more seamlessly than color ones.) The fate of all staged photographs is that they tend to wind up looking contrived. This famous early one is natural and evocative of period:


But she dropped this and moved toward travesty, extreme masquerade, the bizarre, the grotesque, the ugly, the attention-getting, forgetting about the evocative power of the photograph itself. It is for these reasons that one is reluctant to consider Cindy Sherman a photographer and can't help feeling she debases the art of photography in most of her work.


She got better results when she made only subtle changes.


But she tended to drift more and more into attention-getting, because that's the way the contemporary superstar artist goes. The over-expressive, the bizarre, the baroque, has overwhelmed the possible humanizing effects of the ineloquent, the subtle, the truly expressive.

But Cindy Sherman, and her apotheosis in the huge MoMA show, with its giant blowups in cheap, showy frames, does change our way of seeing things. After wandering around staring at the travestied images of this woman, you begin to look at the crowd wandering with you, and they too seem travesties of their real selves, horribly changed by age, makeup, or occupational and class deformities. Cindy makes us aware of that. She has a sad lesson to teach.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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