A corpse, a sex doll, a politician’s wife, a clown and an aging silent movie star—Cindy Sherman is a true shape-shifting master. Over her thirty-five-year career the American photographer and film director has assumed an interminable number of identities and has risen to become one of the most influential photographers of her generation and one of the most prominent figures in contemporary art. Her conceptual works, which have seen her twice represent her country at the Venice Biennale, are often cited as pre-empting today’s obsession with digital self-representation. Cindy Sherman’s photography hence becomes like a visual prophesy of our generation’s selfie culture.
Growing up in a strict and religious home under the control of an over-bearing father, Cindy Sherman found comfort in costume and makeup, using it to escape her reality. She moved to New York in the 1970s and continued to dress up in guises at social occasions as a way to divert attention away from herself and to combat her often crippling shyness. It was only after encouragement from fellow artist and partner at the time Robert Longo, that she started to photograph her transformations and begin the project that has since dominated her life and work.
Using her face as her canvas, Cindy Sherman has created countless characters that parody representations of women from film, television and advertising. Through her images she is able to construct a multiplicity of identities that challenge the restrictive roles typically placed on women. Her project has evolved from her 1970s series Untitled Film Stills—which first saw her gain international recognition—but it has kept closely tied to the changing, yet always stereotyped, constructions of femininity used by the mass media.
It is such an uncanny ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist that has now afforded Cindy Sherman the title “queen of selfie culture”—although she does admit to cringing at such a notion. Her fluid constructions of herself seemed to predict the fact that daily we now create different digital identities through photographs and our social media profiles. This visionary capability means that her works have continued to have a profound impact and she has already become an integral part of art history courses at universities—an inspiration for feminist modules everywhere.
Her Untitled series from 2016 was the first body of photographs Cindy Sherman had created in over five years. Casting herself as ageing Hollywood divas, these works deal with issues that remain of personal relevance for Cindy Sherman—that of mortality and growing old. Rendered in sharp high-resolution and 1960s-esque muted colors, they are a matured version of her older black and white Film Stills, but still depict her characteristically unsettling personalities. These latest personas despite their caked on makeup, have noticeable wrinkles, perhaps a demonstration of the artist’s increasing dedication to reveal more of herself in her work. “I am not trying to obliterate myself and completely hide within the images like I used to. I am a little more comfortable now in letting parts of myself show through.”
Late last year Cindy Sherman received a lot of attention when she decided to make her Instagram account public, joining fellow Pictures Generation artist Richard Prince in her use of the platform. Filled with aerial mountain scenes from planes as well as highly manipulated images of herself, her account provides more of an intimate look into her private world and represents perhaps the latest development in her work. Cindy Sherman has embraced social media but continues to playfully parody it. Her photography encourages us to think about how digital culture shapes our appearances, whether this is through adverts we see in magazines or what we scroll through on our Instagram feeds.
Cindy Sherman is on display at Sprüth Magers, London from June 5 until September 1, 2018.
By Jess Harrison