TRAVEL HERE: CINDY SHERMAN – TALK ABOUT SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!
Education is a funny thing. My BA in Arts and Performance focused on creative writing, but one of the classes I think of most frequently is a photography survey course. That’s where I first heard of Cindy Sherman. Her method of creativity includes setting up a vignette and posing in it herself. Her subject matter frequently deals with the ways in which images of women are exploited. During the class, I found her work interesting, but when the Dallas Museum of Art invited me to the opening of the retrospect exhibition, I had other things going on. I promised myself I’d get down there and see it before it left.
Who Can Resist the Dallas Opera at the DMA?
Then the DMA lured me down there with a more tempting prospect than merely looking at photographs about the exploited female form. Partners of the museum were invited to a musical performance in conjunction with the Dallas Opera. For me, that’s a reason to drop everything and run down to the museum. I tried to imagine what kind of music would be paired with Cindy Sherman’s work, but I was sure whatever it was, it would be grand.
First the Music
I was right about the music. Angela Turner Wilson, accompanied by Shields- Collins Bray, provided an interesting, entertaining and beautiful smorgasbord of modern American music, but not the sort of things you hear on the radio – unless you’re a fan of Classical 101 or KERA radio. There was everything from a ditty about Billy the Kid to John Corigliano’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s poetry. The modern American music was meant to correlate with Cindy Sherman’s modern American photography.
Then the Art
After the music, docents showed up to introduce us to the exhibition. Much of what they covered I knew about from my photography class, but the ideas were fleshed out in more images than I had the opportunity to see before. I found things I liked and others that I didn’t. Here’s what the docents had to say about the exhibition – along with a few observations of my own. Oh and Mr. Bill’s. He went with me.
Her early work is in black and white 8X10’s. If no one told you what was going on, you might think you’d happened onto a room of publicity stills from the movie industry, but Ms. Sherman is toying with us. The starlet you see in every shot is no starlet. It’s the photographer dolled up to look like a starlet, but unless you really looked hard you might never figure it out. Ms. Sherman is a chameleon and even when you know all the photographs are of her, you sometimes can’t believe she’s such a shape-shifter. Though subtle, the theme of exploitation can be found even in these early works.
The room of centerfolds is more to the point. Though mimicking the formatting of Playboy’s centerfold, Ms. Sherman’s works candidly portray women who have allowed themselves to become vulnerable to a man. The viewer looks into the scenes through the eyes of the men who have done the exploiting. Perhaps the woman is laying on the floor or sitting on a bed, but her eyes convey the message that she’s troubled.
Another room of photos frolics through the art of the ages. Ms. Sherman parodies the famous tableaux of the past, like Madonna and Child or Judith with the Head of Holophernes, but never exactly replicates any particular piece of art. Anybody who’s attended an Art Appreciation class will get the joke.
But I didn’t enjoy all of Ms. Sherman’s jokes. Her work brought her fame and then notoriety. If there’s a famous female photographer whose images of women are all the rage, what fashion magazine wouldn’t want her to shoot for them. Well, Ms. Sherman agreed to do some fashion photography, but you wouldn’t want to be in any of her shots. The viewer is not sure whether Ms. Sherman pities the women who buy outrageously expensive designer frocks or detests them, but I was quite sure she didn’t want to be one of them. I seesawed between humor and a feeling of disquiet.
The fashion photos may leave you unsettled, but the final room of photographs should disgust you. You might think I’m trying to insult Ms. Sherman, but that’s exactly the effect she was trying to achieve. She must have been a little disappointed by the fashion photos. One can imagine she was trying to shock us with them and when everyone got the joke and moved on, she wanted to shake us up a little bit. If we’d accept the haunting fashion images without battling an eye, she wanted to find something we wouldn’t cozen up to quite so easily. In short, she turned to sex, vomit and body parts. I didn’t stay in that room very long.
Cindy Sherman is an important name in the modern art scene. Her work will both challenge and amuse you, if you come to it with an open mind, but if you just go to look at pretty pictures, perhaps you should stay home. I take that back. You should go to the museum. There’s always plenty to see in the galleries and The Body Beautiful is a gorgeous exhibition, but if you’re easily offended, don’t go to the Barrel Vault until after June ninth.