The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Transformation, premiering on Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Whether satirizing society or reinventing icons of literature, art history, and popular culture, the artists in Transformation — Paul McCarthy, Cindy Sherman, and Yinka Shonibare MBE — inhabit the characters they create and capture the sensibilities of our age.
Who is Cindy Sherman and what does she have to say about transformation?
Cindy Sherman was born in 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey; she lives and works in New York. In self-reflexive photographs and films, Cindy Sherman invents myriad guises, metamorphosing from Hollywood starlet to clown to society matron. Often with the simplest of means—a camera, a wig, makeup, an outfit—Sherman fashions ambiguous but memorable characters that suggest complex lives lived out of frame. Leaving her works untitled, Sherman refuses to impose descriptive language on her images, relying instead on the viewer’s ability to develop narratives as an essential component of appreciating the work. While rarely revealing her private intentions, Sherman’s investigations have a compelling relationship to public images, from kitsch (film stills and centerfolds) to art history (Old Masters and Surrealism) to green-screen technology and the latest advances in digital photography. Sherman’s exhaustive study of portraiture and self-portraiture—often a playful mixture of camp and horror, heightened by gritty realism—provides a new lens through which to examine societal assumptions surrounding gender and the valuation of concept over style.
On the subject of transformation in art, Sherman describes how changing the way she looks has been a lifelong interest (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):
When I was a kid, I would be alone in my room and just play with makeup. Probably there’s some psychological reason why, but I was doing it at a time when it was not really p.c. for women to be wearing much makeup. In the ’50s, women did do all this stuff to themselves that wasn’t natural—and yet as the ’60s progressed and the ’70s moved on, it was all about being natural. I kind of missed the before and after of what it does to you—and the transformation. So I would just play—to see what makeup could do.
In college when I did it, I would become a character and then think, “Well, gee, here I am as Lucille Ball. What do I do now?” There’d be some friends in the other room watching Saturday Night Live and I’d just go sit with them and hang out. It became sort of a thing, a little more like performance. I started to go to parties in character. When I moved to New York I did it a few times, but suddenly it wasn’t the same. In the city I felt like I needed my own sort of ‘street armor’ just to deal with the people out on the street and the real crazy people who looked like some of my characters I didn’t want to be confused with them. But I remember going to a couple of parties as characters. I felt like people wouldn’t know I was there and it wouldn’t really matter because I didn’t know them anyway. Or it was kind of an interesting disguise.
What happens in Sherman’s segment in Transformation this October?
“It’s kind of an interesting thing to see yourself,” says Cindy Sherman about discovering her uncanny childhood photo album A Cindy Book (c. 1964–75) as an adult. Sherman decided to update the book by adding circled photos of herself and writing ‘that’s me’ under each, faking more mature handwriting with new additions. “It’s interesting to see your evolution…to think that that’s really the same person now.” Projects done in college—the animated film Doll Clothes (1975) and the photo-collaged cut outs in A Play of Selves and Murder Mystery People (both 1976)—culminate in the character-driven work she’s best know for today. “I didn’t want to make what looked like art,” she says about her series Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), explaining that “film has always kind of been more influential to me than the art world.”
The segment surveys thirty years of untitled works in which the artist photographs herself in various scenes and guises, grouped into informally-named series such as fairy tales, centerfolds, history portraits, Hollywood/Hampton types, and clowns. Sherman used a digital camera and green screen for her most recent series of society portraits, modifying each image’s “background with the same kind of license that a painter would take.” Sorting through test shots at the computer, Sherman leads the viewer through her iterative process of creating the matronly woman in Untitled (#468) (2008). “It was such a change for me to see them really big…because suddenly they seemed much more tragic,” she says about life-size photographs on view at Metro Pictures gallery in New York (2008). “I can’t imagine really doing this my whole life,” she says, with the segment later following her to a thrift store where, upon finding several “wacky pants” she wonders if this shopping trip “might be inspiring a whole new series.”
What else has Sherman done?
Cindy Sherman earned a BA from State University College, Buffalo, New York (1976). Among her awards are the Guild Hall Academy of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award for Visual Arts (2005); American Academy of Arts and Sciences Award (2003); National Arts Award (2001); a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (1995), and others. Her work has appeared in major exhibitions at Sprüth Magers, Berlin (2009); Jeu de Paume, Paris (2006); Museum of Modern Art, New York (1997); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1997), among others. Sherman has participated in many international events, including SITE Santa Fe (2004); the Venice Biennale (1982, 1995); and five Whitney Biennials.
Where can I see more of Sherman’s work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?
Cindy Sherman is represented by Metro Pictures in New York. Her most recent series of works can be seen at Gagosian Gallery in Rome through September 19th. Her work can also be seen in the group exhibitions The Female Gaze at Cheim & Read in New York (through September 19th); in Sonic Youth etc.: Sensational Fix at Malmö Konsthall in Sweden (through September 20th); and as part of the 2010 ICP Triennial at the International Center of Photography in New York (September 19th through January 4, 2010).
What’s your take on Sherman’s inclusion in Season 5?
Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!