24th Street Showdown: Cindy Sherman v. Richard Prince

Score a victory for female artists in Chelsea galleries this month. Women are still routinely underrepresented in museum collections (see Jerry Saltz’s debate-sparking tally of MoMA’s permanent collection), but not so in the commercial realm in December, where exhibitions by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Anne Chu, Tomma Abts and others stand out as the best of the moment. I found myself pitching an all-female list of reviews to an editor last week–probably a first for me in over ten years of writing art criticism.

Representations of women, however, are another thing. Two prominent cases in point are Richard Prince’s show at Gagosian Gallery and Cindy Sherman’s at Metro Pictures, both a study in how to demean their prominent female figures. But while Sherman demonstrates her staying power by incisively skewering the absurdities of conspicuous consumption, Prince is churning out product to pass off to said consumers.

Channeling a Gauguin-in-Tahiti impulse and apparently referring to his birthplace, the Panama Canal Zone, Prince’s giant collages pair porn shots of women with occasional Rastafarian characters in a tropical setting. Whatever civilizing impulse reigned Prince in with his merely suggestive ‘nurses’ and ‘girlfriends’ series in the past has evidently given way to an orgy of bad taste compounded by the sheer volume of monotonously similar work crammed into Gagosian’s cavernous space. The mixed race encounters recall Hannah Hoch’s Dada collage, but eighty years of cultural theory later it’s hard to see Prince’s more graphic version as anything other than gratuitous sex and offensive stereotype whether or not it’s intended to be tongue-in-cheek.

Meanwhile, down the block, Cindy Sherman’s new photo series admittedly also debases her subjects but without removing all of their dignity. Once again, she dons a range of disguises and this time, adopts an enormous scale to convey the grandeur that her new subjects (ladies-who-lunch) would presumably like to project. She masterfully evokes the foibles of a “too much money, too little taste” crowd and certainly doesn’t seem to be afraid of alienating the percentage of her audience who must fall into this category themselves. The enormous size of the photos reads as a jab at the current art world taste for splashy big artwork with high production values, revealing Sherman to be at the top of her game over thirty years after she started her landmark Untitled Film Stills series.

What do you think of these two new bodies of work? Check out the exhibition review I shot on video this weekend of Sherman’s work, and post a comment.


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  2. J.V. says:

    Merrily:

    I enjoyed this review and I look forward to others. (Would you also review the Richard Prince show so we can compare them side-by-side?)

    I have a great deal of sympathy for Ms Sherman’s subjects. These ladies are just imperfect people trying their best to navigate this horrible judgmental place we call life. Aren’t we all? I don’t have even a fraction of the wealthy portrayed here — I’m just an average guy — but these photos all look like mirrors to me. Money doesn’t change people, it just makes them more of what they are.

    I don’t think these women are hurting anyone by having “bad taste.” (If they are doing something hurtful, then it’s a different story). Maybe Ms Sherman is skewering anyone who thinks ill of them. If the male gaze is contemptible, then I’d argue that other types of gazes which objectify and possibly demean their subjects should also be.

    Anyway, please keep up the good work, and keep posting lots of reviews. This one was well done and provided great food for thought.

    Reply

    Merrily Kerr Reply:

    Thanks for the feedback. It would be great to review the Prince show, too, but Gagosian has a policy against filming/photography, apparently. I hope you’ll subscribe to my exhibition reviews on video at my website: http://www.NewYorkArtTours.com.

    I take your point, but think that Sherman, and by extension her audience, isn’t criticizing her subjects for their bad taste in clothing so much as asking what the outcomes are if these are the people who by their patronage are shaping our culture/politics/etc.

    But who knows. Maybe these are people who AREN’T patrons and Sherman is suggesting that it’s too bad they don’t surround themselves with a little art to improve their taste. Ha!

    Reply

  3. Freese says:

    Darn it all! You beat me to the punch, as I am currently drafting a review of Sherman’s work at Metro Pictures. Thank you nevertheless. May I ask, why do you see her recent photographs as concerning “conspicuous consumption”? Frankly, I’ve never seen Sherman’s work about consumption at all, and was surprised to read this. Perhaps I’m not understanding your use of the word consumption.

    Reply

    Merrily Kerr Reply:

    The characters portrayed are conspicuous consumers. Though some of those dresses look pretty old, so maybe not!

    Reply

  4. Martha Schwendener at the Village Voice scores Sherman v. Prince this way: Art Market = 1, Feminism = 0.

    “Standing in Gagosian, you witness [...] the triumph of the market over feminism. Because, while feminism faltered, derailed by its own internal battles, the ’90s witnessed the rise of artists like John Currin and Jason Rhoades (of Black Pussy notoriety), whose market success created a kind of critical immunity for misogyny.”

    Or is it: Feminism = 1; Art Market = 0

    “Sherman’s new body of work isn’t pitch-perfect; sometimes it’s shrill and cartoonish. But it’s fearless and self-searching compared to Prince’s decadent colonial exotica. On the other hand, with the art market poised on the brink of apocalypse, maybe Prince offers the perfect punctuation for a moment about to end.”

    I’m confused…Merrily, your thoughts? Full article here:
    http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-12-10/art/female-trouble-richard-prince-and-cindy-sherman/

    Reply

    Merrily Kerr Reply:

    I think the scorecard is more like art market 5,329, feminism 3. (Or some similar ratio.)

    Martha Schwendener suggests that with this new body of work, Prince is trying to join the canon rather than pursue a new direction like he did with his early appropriated material. In other words, the point of view that generated his new body of work has been the norm for masters from Titian to Manet (Olympia) to Gauguin (in Tahiti), etc. Feminism has opened the door for more exceptions to the norm, so Sherman scores with her alternative – ‘real’ aging women.

    Right? What do you think?

    Reply

    Wesley Miller Reply:

    I suppose I’m more taken (or confused) by the argument that a male artist’s “market success” has created a “critical immunity for misogyny.” If the art market has always been dominated by male artists, it doesn’t really take enormous success to create a blindspot or cover for bad behavior (setting aside the issue of whether you think Currin or Rhoades or Prince’s work is in fact misogynistic). I don’t think it’s price tags that are the issue here.

    I wonder more about the unstated binary oppositions of capitalism and feminism, and then male and female artists. Yes, it’s catchy, but it flattens out some really important distinctions. It assumes that men can’t be feminists and that feminism and feminist art (at least in the West) and the torrent of identity/politically-inspired and formally adventurous work it’s inspired the past three decades, hasn’t also been an enormous success in the marketplace. In fact, it’s fundamentally transformed art, and as an artist Prince is probably more immediately indebted to feminist artistic practices than to old (male) masters.

    I guess what I keep returning to is the rather simplistic and rhetorical war of the sexes at play here in the form of Barbie versus Ken. Yes, art by women often sells for less and is grossly unrepresented. But that’s different than feminism versus capitalism, which, when looking around at what’s made today…it often looks like both come out on top and that most art shown in New York is a product of a capitalistic system informed by feminist aesthetic strategies from the 60s and 70s.

    For contrast, in a recent post Jennifer Doyle points out a body of work by “art criminals” often informed by feminism but rarely supported by capitalism. And Cindy Sherman does not fit that category: http://blog.art21.org/2008/12/10/blood-work-art-criminals/

    Reply

  5. Pingback: Cindy Sherman Photographs « Freese

  6. In your video, you often refer to Cindy Sherman’s ostensibly obvious intentions in creating these characters. How, then, do you account for the artist’s intentions, in light of the fact that Sherman has, throughout history, rejected any specific delineation of her motivations behind each series of work? The sheer fact that she labels every photograph as “Untitled” is only one way of seeing this. Sherman has been decisively silent in regards to the ideological and critically theoretical approaches to deconstruct her work, and thus Merrily I worry that you’re way oversimplifying. While this could be your reading on Sherman’s intentions, it most certainly should not be presented as THE exact meaning. Rather, one should mine these photographs for their own readings– their own arguments about Sherman’s photographic subjects. However, one certainly could claim that the post postmodern movements in Sherman’s millennial photography rejects even this motion, but I think we cannot be so quick to imprint meaning onto these photographs.

    Also, I’d like to hear what you have to say about how exactly Richard Prince is so abusive to feminism in his “monotonous” collages at Gagosian. Just because he’s more blatant with this series than the “Nurses” or “Girlfriends,” does that mean he’s any more full of conviction in regards to his purported misogyny? This seems like you’re jumping to conclusions without allowing for any dual readings to be discussed or given any weight.

    Reply

    Merrily Kerr Reply:

    Sherman hasn’t often commented on the meaning of her work, I assume because she doesn’t see that as her job or because the work stands on its own or because she wants us to. Of course, everyone will have his or her own readings, but I’m not interested in trying to summarize a variety of responses. In my video, I share my point of view, just as I do when I write a piece of criticism for a printed publication.

    With regard to the Richard Prince, have you seen the show? As with Cecily Brown’s show, it takes a lot of artwork to fill that space and by the end, it all starts to look the same. I didn’t say he was abusive to feminism or mention misogyny (maybe you are thinking of Martha Schwendener’s response?). I did say the show is ‘in bad taste,’ ‘gratuitous,’ and ‘offensive.’

    Reply

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