Module number: ARF 501 fine art in context 2
Select one of the lecture topics from semester one from which to explore and analyse the work of a single artist. You should restrict your analysis of their work to a key period and consider how it could be analysed and discussed from different perspectives.
This essay will seek to analyse the work of Cindy Sherman during the years of 1985 to 92, questioning if the work produced can be considered feminist. Sherman’s career has spanned over thirty years, and she is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading contemporary female artists. Although she uses a camera, she has never been a conventional photographer. It would be wrong to describe her as a photographer, as from the beginning her interest in the medium has been minimal, seeing photography as an easy and accessible means of portraying a visual language. Belonging to a generation of avant-garde artists who gained momentum in the seventies, her work has radically challenged the nature and function of art. A development of the ideas pop art portrayed, Sherman has used popular culture in an attempt to question the values of contemporary society. Her work was quickly ‘claimed’ by feminists stating that her images were not self-portraits but questioned gender, identity, and power. Sherman herself has said “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work…but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.” Characters Sherman has portrayed include a vast variety including career women, domestic housewives, clowns, youth and beauty, death and ashen hags. Each with their own story open for deliberation by each viewer, have investigated the roles of women in contemporary society.
During the early 80s Sherman created work known as fashion photographs, this was a significant stage in her creative evolution. Since the beginning her art focused on fabrication of characters that were in some way recognisable as stereotypes of women, some of which were androgynous. However in fashion victims a new darkness emerged, there was a noticeable escalation of emotion approaching conditions of nightmare and madness. The fashion photographs were commissioned by a shop owner in 83 for a spread in ‘interview’ magazine, Sherman was given clothing by high-end designers, however what she created was the anti-thesis of glamour adverts. The models looked silly yet delighted, sinister yet deranged. Fashion is seen as a means of masquerade for women, promising a more perfect version of oneself, manufacturing a desire that can never be fulfilled. In 1985 the fairy tales took on the disturbing aspects of the fashion photographs and pushed them to a higher level. It was at this point Sherman’s images became truly strange and surreal. Invited by ‘Vanity Fair’ to contribute images based on fairy tales, Sherman responded with photographs that have nothing in common with the bedtime stories we associate within the genre. Sherman had previously appropriated the techniques and styles of cinema and television, and again used this to craft scenarios that resemble low-budget crime thrillers, sci-fi and horror films for fairy tales. The backgrounds became important elements to suggest narratives combined with horrific creatures, these gruesome tales were unusual as we are unaccustomed to seeing such horror represented in photos. Using techniques of theatre including lighting, costume, props, colour, wigs and prosthesis Sherman created a series that breaks the line between reality and fantasy. As the series progressed it delved more into fantasy, using prosthesis, these artificial extensions add a disturbing layer of ambiguity. Prosthesis are effective props emphasising artifice yet fracturing the viewers to rationalise, creating an unnerving denial of truth. Images such as untitled #155 which features a naked figure with false buttocks and legs, produce a profound sense of unease with a deeply troubling posture, which makes us question whether it is grubby sex, violation or neither. Similarly untitled #153 portrays what could be a murder victim. These images suggest a violence towards women, which could be linked to works such as Marina Abramovic’s rhythm 0, a six hour performance at Galleria studio morra in Naples in 1974, during which Abramovic allowed herself to be manipulated by the public. A range of items were put on a table consisting of grooming tools, food and weapons. The performance evolved into one of trauma ending with the artist holding a loaded gun against her own head, with tears in her eyes and her blouse pulled open to expose her breasts, with bleeding from a head wound. Allowing herself to be controlled by the public she made herself vulnerable, and open to abuse and humiliation like so many women face in their daily lives. The women in Sherman’s fairy tales could easily be subjects of abuse by the hands of others. Making them works that demonstrate feminist issues.
Between 1986 and 1990 Sherman created works that showed devastation and destruction, in stark contrast to her previous work Sherman’s presence is absent in most of the images. As in fairy tales the background/set became an important element. The sets assumed centre stage were brutish things overcome the human element. These apocalyptic fantasies present an extreme violence, and the absence of a person signifies death. Sherman withdrew as an active element, and a growing impression of alienation emerged. These works contrasted to the idealised consumer dream imagined in Sherman’s fashion photographs, yet they are an advancement of the fairytales depict a world beset by catastrophe, with landscapes devoid of life and compassion, displaying destruction, decay and depravity. They collectively display a quality reminiscent of Goya’s ‘Disasters of war’ etchings. Holding a mirror up to a world gripped by its own foul appetite for chaos. Each year gave rise to new horrors stemming from 1986, the year Chernobyl contaminated northern Europe providing hellish backdrops. Homelessness, drug use, aids, war, disease and famine were widespread at the time. Corrupted earth, decay, vomit, debris, dolls and masks replace the arrangement of the earlier character studies. There is no order, logic, or hope, and no evidence of cause. These photographs however do not seem to have a feminist reference, only that the whole of mankind is in disarray. Although the images show a creative experimentation, they cease to depict the stereotypical women of her earlier work. Death becomes her subject, such as in Untitled #168, the body is absent, but signified with a suit arranged on the floor, as though the body has been vaporized like those in the science fiction story “War of the Worlds”. Untitled #175 shows a face reflected in the lens of glasses, a possible murder victim, reflecting a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a train” (1951). These photographs do not depict broken women, but a broken world. On the other hand these images can be seen as a continuation of the fairy tales’ abused women. Seeking to demonstrate the effects of exploitation of women in popular culture and the media, and how it affects the minds of each new generation. If this ‘using’ of the female body to sell objects continues, could it be sending the message that women are objects, and therefore made to be used, abused, and thrown away when no longer required? The destruction depicted in Sherman’s disasters could therefore be seen as the destruction of equality and feminism.
The disaster images show an experimentation with a range of surrogates, Sherman’s disappearance could be seen as a kind of distaste, was she appalled by the degradation and perhaps no longer a willing participant? These images paved the way for Sherman’s later works which question sex and pornography, with the use of fabricated bodies. Giving more endorsement of the feminist issues the disaster photographs may be attempting to illustrate. However in 1988-90 Sherman reappeared in her work, when she was commissioned to create objects in porcelain by a French manufacturer. These works became “History portraits”. Evolving her previous work, and characters, Sherman created people who were self-evidently historic figures who pre-dated photography. Appropriating earlier styles and conventions, with the trappings of the old masters, she created images of visual disjunction. As in her earlier works, she wanted to imitate the look and feel of the source material. Imitating artists such as Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), and Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Sherman created a series of works that parody classical portraiture. Some photographs refer to several paintings, and some are based solely on one painting. Untitled #224 for example was based on “Sick Bacchus” (1593-94) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). This photograph was the closest to a copy of the original, which is believed to be a self-portrait disguised as Bacchus, the Roman God of wine. Seen as a strong feminist piece as a 20th century female artist, impersonates a 16th century male artist’s impersonation of a mythological subject. The wreath of Ivy and grapes in the original are symbols of sexual appetite and vitality. Caravaggio’s canvas also includes two peaches, these are specifically male homoerotic connotations suggesting virility. Sherman eliminates this detail, and instead enlarges the ivy wreath, placing it “tipsy” angled as a parody of the visual symbols of the original. These subtle exaggerations are extremely effective, and draw upon contemporary attitudes. The works contained a larger range of prosthetics such as false noses and breasts, poking fun at the sophistication of the art of the masters, mocking the pretentiousness of the elegant ladies, gentlemen and mythological figures that the old masters painted. Being a strong ‘in your face’ insult to the male dominated ways of fine art history.
In 1992 Sherman created the sex and pornography photographs, Sherman wrote in one of her notebooks “What could I possibly do when I want to stop using myself and don’t want other people in the photos?” Followed by a list of ideas, including dummies, photos of other people in the photos, shadows, and masks. In this series human presence was implied by the use of these techniques. The obviously fabricated scenes have a compelling visual allure, although they oppose validity. With rich colour, textural intricacy, and atmospheric lighting the images shock yet seduce the viewer, who find reflected a world they already know. The anatomical dummies and body parts, which were originally used for medical purposes recreate postures and acts that are glamourized in pornography, but are unrealistic in real life. Sex photographs show the loveless intimacy that so many people participate in, they seek sensation but show a desperation, and the folly beneath porn’s veil of pleasure. Sherman’s reluctance to appear in the images is understandable as these images show the darker overtones of power and aggression, with positions to obscene to publish if she herself had posed for them. The subjects are stripped of human dignity, and objectified as are the women of pornography. Untitled #264 is a strong representation of this, the figure lounging on silky fabric, legs wide and inviting, gives the viewer and immediate perception of pornography. However upon closer inspection, the body has no torso, only large false breasts, much like many of the women portrayed in pornography, and no arms, but a very human looking hand creeps into the shot beside it. The face is obscured by a mask, instantly dehumanizing the figure. Untitled #253 shows what looks to be an act of cunnilingus on a seemingly ‘normal’ looking body, but the head of this mannequin has been removed and is itself performing the act, again giving a powerful sense of dehumanization. Reminiscent of POV (point of view) pornography videos, where the viewer has a sense of the act being performed on themselves, with no real intimacy or connection to the performer. It is pure fantasy, and places the role of the woman as an object of desire, a toy to be used at the owner’s whim.
In conclusion, the work Sherman produced in this time has strong links to feminist attitudes, although not directly obvious in some. The fairy tale series, and disasters series do not instantly give the viewer perceptions of feminism, but upon deeper reading and understanding of Sherman’s previous works, and the work she created after these series’, the images are full of feminist concepts. These range from subtle hints of violence, and technology, to the truths behind our favourite bedtime stories. Even in the 80s objectification of women in the media was apparent and Sherman’s disasters demonstrate this with references of the media, connected with the obvious violence. Sherman’s characters leave their stories to the imagination, but as the work develops, these stories become more saturated with whispers of feminist hope.
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Sally O’Reilly (2009). The Body in Contemporary Art: Thames & Hudson.
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