Two years later, I went the full Sherman, when she made darkness visible in her horrific-beautiful “sex pictures”—images I’ve always called, after Goya’s paintings of war, “The Disasters of Sex.” Fashioned from dismembered and recombined mannequins, some adorned with pubic hair, one posed with a tampon in vagina, another with sausages being excreted from vulva, this was anti-porn porn, the unsexiest sex pictures ever made, visions of feigning, fighting, perversion. A studio note to herself from this time reads “should be more toward terror.” I’ll say.
Today, I think of Cindy Sherman as an artist who only gets better. Right up to the most recent works at MoMA—giant implacable wall murals featuring Sherman as unknowable beings, sometimes more than one of her, wearing nude full bodysuits or early-twentieth-century frocks, carrying a shield, or bearing flowers. These neorealist pictures are as strange and strong as anything she has ever made. Since around 2005, she’s become a great colorist and manipulator of internal scale. Her colors aren’t just red or yellow but bloody and ashen, dramatic, vivid, flowering. Faces fill frames; the photographs feel ready to burst or collapse from internal pressure. No part of Sherman’s graphic field is now left unconsidered.
Still, I can imagine newcomers (are there Sherman “newcomers”?) getting bogged down in “Where’s Waldo” games of “There’s Cindy” or being turned off by the formal similarity and narrowness in the basic structures of her art. As a one-time skeptic, I offer four pointers to the unconvinced:
1. You can never say exactly who the people are in her pictures or what they’re doing. Sherman is the master of the “esque”—of creating beings in the manner, likeness, and style of a thing. Frustrated viewers often want her to supply explanations, story lines, even titles (which she hasn’t used since the film stills). Sherman, however, adamantly says she strives for “ambiguity” and that viewers are the ones who should “come up with the narrative.” Do this. But don’t think in traditional terms of plot, continuity, character development, whatever. Her people are actors and inventions, each a tabula rasa and an open program for unformed archaic phantasmagorias.
2. Sherman has talked about her own father unflatteringly: “He was a horrible self-centered person … really racist … a bigot.” Coming into the art world of the seventies, she found more bad fathers: In MoMA’s excellent catalogue she speaks to John Waters about being “disgusted … with the art world … the boy artists, the boy painters.” She talks about “female solidarity” and says her pictures are about “provoking men into reassessing their assumptions when they look at pictures of women … in a way that would make a male viewer feel uncomfortable.” It worked on me. She and her female contemporaries (Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Laurie Simmons, and a few others) “weren’t accepted in the guys’ world, so we found this whole other way to create.” Some of them took up the camera partly because no one cared about photography at the time—it had no market—and they reinvented the medium forever.
3. Her characters have wrongly been compared to those of Diane Arbus, whose subjects look out at us from similarly stark interiors and invite us into a world they’re comfortable in. Sherman’s characters, on the other hand, are conjured and parodic, removed, uncomfortable. They never want us to step in. They exude fictive will, detachment. They are effigies.
4. Sherman’s pictures are like Zen koans. Rather than being about understanding, they’re about coming to grips with the state of mind that produces them. She has a luminous way of breathing life into things that cannot be described. Giving herself over to her own processes, Sherman opens up thought and makes pictures that subtly withdraw from definition, dislodging meaning, undermining ideology, becoming what I’d call radically passive. She sings the song of her selves.