Cindy Sherman has come full circle in her new body of work, returning to the trope of the actress performing for the camera, a tacit allusion to the series that made her an art star, the “Untitled Film Stills.” She completed that series in 1980, the same year Metro Pictures opened and began representing her. Fittingly, her latest exhibition inaugurated the gallery’s newly renovated space.
In contrast to the earlier series, Sherman here adopts the guise not of the rising starlet or wide-eyed ingenue but of an Old Hollywood grand dame past her prime, depicting, in exacting detail, the pancake makeup settling in frown lines as she poses in flapper costume, and the veined, spotted hands coyly fingering ersatz jewels. As the artist recently described in a New York Times interview, the work is in part a meditation on her own experiences of aging as a woman in her sixties. This admission is remarkable not only because the subject of the aging female body remains something of a cultural taboo, but also because Sherman has, throughout her career, consistently pushed back on attempts to read her work autobiographically, even as she has made her presence in the photographs her signature. It is also something of a red herring: these are no more self-portraits than were the “Untitled Film Stills”—or the clowns, the centerfolds, the old-master portraits—and the inner life of Cindy Sherman remains as elusive here as ever.
Sherman’s work has often been viewed in terms of performance, with critics discussing her radical metamorphoses from picture to picture, as she employs costumes, makeup, prosthetics, and, more recently, digital tools to embody a range of characters and stock types. But what she ultimately makes are photographs: the effect of the “Untitled Film Stills” is achieved less through what Sherman wears than through the cinematic coding of the compositions. Likewise, for the new photographs, Sherman adopts not only the role of the fading siren of the silver screen but the format of Golden Age glamour shots and promotional studio portraits, a genre of image defined by its self-evident artifice. The use of color rather than black-and-white, however, interrupts the pretense of this series as a period piece: by the time Technicolor becomes the Hollywood norm, Sherman’s subjects, with their finger-waved hair, cupid’s-bow lips, and pencil-thin brows, would already have seemed tragically old-fashioned.
What I found most striking about these works were the backgrounds, which were digitally inserted in postproduction with a deliberate clumsiness exacerbated by their use of rudimentary special effects. In one image, Sherman, enveloped in a cascade of white silk, chiffon, and feather trim, poses against an apparently solarized garden scene, framed by a lavender-gray sky and the hazy suggestion of trees. In another, an alpine landscape appears carved in low relief, like something out of a Photoshop tutorial from 1998. These ungainly backdrops amplify the temporal dissonance at play throughout the series: the photographs position their subjects as already-outmoded relics of the silent-film studio machine, their datedness redoubled through the use of digital editing effects that now appear embarrassingly passé. Running parallel to Sherman’s own transformations over the course of her career are the dramatic changes that have redefined photography itself. Here, Sherman proves that she is still among the medium’s most perceptive commentators.