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Mind your mannerism: Tracy Moffatt's Laudanum, 5.Photo: courtesy of Paul Morris Gallery and the Matthew Marks Gallery

Sex sells in art. Always has, always will. And the spicier the better. The artists of our period, however, face an unusual dilemma. The modernist exploration of sexual outrage is now more than 150 years old, with the result that the shocking, exotic, and bizarre now look increasingly routine. This has led to a period of sexual mannerism, as artists try to invigorate a great but waning tradition. A good mannerist is flashy, sophisticated, and clever – whether today or in the sixteenth century – and cultivates a knowing and often academic audience of insiders, using strange and theatrically heightened effects to startle a jaded taste. When you take the long view, it is easy to dismiss or condescend to such end-of-the-tradition art. And yet it suits the current fin de siècle mood and the unending stream of vulgar revelations in the media.

This month, two provocative examples of sexual mannerism in late-twentieth-century art are on display in Chelsea. Both Tracey Moffatt and Cindy Sherman have a stage sensibility; both create a theater of the perverse, giving a twist to familiar sexual conventions in modernist culture. At the Paul Morris Gallery, Moffatt evokes the Victorian era – which to the contemporary imagination invariably symbolizes straitlaced “repression” – in a dark, hallucinatory tale about a mistress and a maid. Called Laudanum after the opium-based preparation popular among the Victorians, the story is presented in a series of nineteen photogravures that evoke the studied, powdery gray-brown look of nineteenth-century photography; some images are in the shape of fans and ovals. At the same time, the pictures resemble film stills. Moffatt, who began as a filmmaker, created elaborate sets and hired actresses to make the work; art today often dreams of the movies. She also devised some twisty, hallucinatory effects with the help of a computer.

In Laudanum, a mistress erotically ravishes and dominates a maid. (The Story of O is one inspiration behind the work.) Moffatt does not present this narrative in strict chronological sequence, which adds to the work’s floating, dreamy air. Over time, however, the story line nonetheless becomes fairly clear. An early image shows the mistress on a grand staircase while the maid scrubs the floor. Later, the mistress obsessively studies the maid as she sleeps naked on a couch; at another point, the mistress furiously cuts off the maid’s hair; at still another, the corset of the mistress has apparently loosened. A large keyhole enhances the mood of voyeuristic darkness. The swooning effects of laudanum are suggested through ripplings in the space and flarings of shadow. A flower pot falls and smashes. A murder probably takes place. In one picture, a large pillowy shape – perhaps a body bag containing the maid – lies beneath the staircase.

Laudanum is a witty union of two fins de siècle, our own and that of the nineteenth century. With remarkable fidelity, Moffatt reproduces that sickly-sweet air of séance and symbolism, of erotic eruption and dark perversion, that characterized the 1890s. But viewers will sense the late twentieth century – a harshly lit and voyeuristic period that strips people bare – in Moffatt’s intense nostalgia for a darkly muffled world of dreams and secrets. The artist also brings some contemporary political concerns into Laudanum. An Australian with an aboriginal background, Moffatt has often explored the rough edges of class, gender, and race. In her Victorian melodrama, the maid has a dusky, foreign appearance; perhaps she is partly Asian. The domination, in short, is not just erotic but political. Yet Moffatt makes the point allusively, in a whisper entirely in keeping with the tone of the work.

There is nothing quiet about Cindy Sherman’s current photographs. At Metro Pictures, she is showing a group of images in which nasty things are done to dolls – a theme that, like Victorian repression, is a twentieth-century standard. In the thirties, the surrealist Hans Bellmer created the touchstone work in this genre (last spring, the Ubu Gallery organized a powerful show of his photographs of abused dolls), and countless artists over the years have sported with the big dolls called mannequins; today, you could write a dissertation on what artists have done to Barbie. In this exhibit, Sherman pushes the tradition as far as it can go. She stages scenes in which a variety of Barbies and G.I. Joes and Disney dolls are placed in horrific sexual environments. The dolls are mutilated and dismembered. Their genitals are prominent. In one image, she depicts a male doll pushing a wheelchair that holds a decapitated female doll, whose head lies on the foot rest. The female doll’s legs are splayed open, and she is leaking from her genitals.

Sherman is best known for “Untitled Film Stills,” a series of photographs made from 1977 to 1980 in which the artist assumed many of the different roles assigned to women in American culture and played up by Hollywood. That particular work was a brilliant and telling act of calculated narcissism. Since then, she has frequently tried to crack the veneer of role, surface, and pose. If artists earlier in the century would typically employ dolls and mannequins to explore forbidden desires or highlight the dehumanizing forces of the machine age, Sherman uses dolls to deface her surface-obsessed culture. She creates a grim satire of the shiny sexuality of, say, a Calvin Klein ad – where the models make mannequins look human by comparison – or the trivial infantilism of commercial movies. Like Mapplethorpe or Serrano, Sherman likes to spin the style in counterpoint to the subject. Her ghastly scenes appear almost delicate: They are softly focused and filled with gray tones.

The subject might be hot, but the eye is cool. That paradoxical temperature, which is found in both shows, is typical of contemporary taste. Calculation and passion are almost indistinguishable; the unconscious is self-conscious. This strain of sensibility now does best, I think, when it does not overreach. Laudanum, despite the grim story, is playful and elusive. It remains a kind of nostalgic period piece. Sherman’s art, however, confronts some of the darkest corners of the psyche. Her ambition is admirable, but you have to be a very great artist indeed – a Goya rather than a De Sade – to take the just measure of such darkness. The hot-cool eye is too careful, too aware of the audience, to capture it. Sexual shock can easily become, this late in the game, just another strategy. Even a kind of child’s play.

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