Exhibition on at the City Gallery Wellington from the 19 November 2016 to 19 March 2017.
I first learnt about Cindy Sherman’s art when I was studying at NMIT, and I was so blown away by her work, and the ideas in it. I loved how much I found myself relating to her work, and how powerful and uncompromising it was. Since coming across her work I have constantly thought about her art, and related her art to the kinds of work I might like to one day make myself. So, when I saw that Cindy Sherman was coming to City Gallery Wellington I nearly cried!
I went to see her art on the Sunday morning after the opening and I was blown away. I really loved the exhibition. I took my 3 year old daughter along to the exhibition with me, and she was happy running around the gallery, yelling about what she was seeing (for a 3 year old this art is so bright, a little bit scary, and so magical. Not to mention City Gallery he huge open spaces that are awesome for a little kid thats been on a plane all morning to run around in.) Grace, my daughter, chatted happily to me about the art works, and pointed to the ones that she was particularly drawn to, laughing at some (such as the sad clowns “ha ha ha mummy, look at the clown, it’s so sad”) and telling me about what the characters were doing “Aww mummy this one is sad because her bum hurts” (fyi – to my daughter everyone’s bum hurts. She’s not a particularly politically correct wee thing.)
The large installation, which I would just call a mural even though it wasn’t drawn onto the wall, was huge and imposing. My daughter wanted to touch the people and go right up to them (much to the great fear of the staff watching her. She got yelled at, I thought we might have been kicked out at that point – eek. Sorry Cindy for touching your art!) The figures were imposing, much much larger than life, and all but one, the guard, was looking towards you with their huge eyes which follow you where you go. For me I wasn’t overly fussed with this one, but it was something to see, and it set you up for the feeling of being watched (or gazed at as my art teacher taught me when I first learned about Sherman). This gaze is reflective of the idea of the way men (according to feminist art theory) look at women. The way they look at them as something they hold power over, in a way that they are a thing to be devoured or enjoyed – I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. I would be inclined to suggest that this idea of the gaze doesn’t stop at men gazing at woman (and I feel – after seeing this exhibition – that this is where Sherman’s ideas are going) but extends to everyone gazing at everyone else. That everyone else in this world is there for someone else to judge and look upon in any way they feel like.
The first exhibition we went into were the clowns.
The clowns are all quite sinister and ironic. Clowns always are in my opinion. These people dressed up and acting overly happy and crazy. They are everyone’s friends straight away. But then some people are terrified of clowns. There are clowns that are always sad, or shy or meek. Clowns are like these hyper real people which are design to overemphasise some element of humans for the benefit of making others laugh. Clowns work as a catharsis where you can laugh at the foibles of human kind, or of yourself or someone you recognise. It a way of looking at the tragic elements of life and laughing at them, seeing the ridiculousness of the situation so you can move on and heal yourself.
These photos reminded me of the fairly recent death of Robin Williams. Someone who was so funny, that wore a mask in the form of a smiling face and humour, and managed to hide the fact of his deep sorrow from the world. Images like the one above really hit home for me this idea of people laughing at someone who has the intention of making others laugh, but really needs support from others. There is a sense of foreboding, and isolation despite the fact that the image is crammed with laughing faces. The image above has put into focus the clown standing meekly in the background, small among these huge laughing (maybe screaming) faces. You can’t help but wonder why this clown is alone, why is she standing there appearing to be naked though being fully clothed.
With her depiction of the clowns Sherman comments not only on this catharsis, and on being human, but she also comments on her own artwork. Clowns painting their faces in an exaggerated way designed to make the audience know beyond a doubt that they are made up, that they are wearing a mask, you were never supposed to believe this person with a painted face looks like this without the paint applied to their own face. Sherman’s art works in the same way, she applies the make up and other elements of her “sitters” so that you are completely aware of the make up they wear, you are aware that it is make up, but you are never able to see clearly the person behind the make up. It is often said that even though you have seen a hundred photos of Sherman in the art gallery, even if she were standing next to you in the gallery of her work, you wouldn’t recognise her. This is the same with clowns, when they remove their make up they are a completely different person.
What struck me about the clowns particularly ones like the above one is that even though clowns have this image of being happy (they turn up to children’s parties, or are at circuses playing around and joking with each other) there were clowns that look so sad. But you know that they are “made up” so how could you possibly know if the person behind the clown make up is really sad and showing that overtly, and how can you know that they aren’t actually overly happy and trying to mask that by being sad?
The image above has Cindy’s name printed on her jumper. This could just be a label that is worn such as “Gucci” a brand to raise the image of what she wears, or of the photograph itself – like a logo – or it could be a way of identifying the person behind the clown, even though, even with a name that “identifies” the person, we can never truly see the person, or understand the person without the mask taken away. But then the question with this artwork, being that most people don’t very often see Sherman as herself, is whether even if Sherman were herself is the “real” her also a mask that she wears. How can we as onlookers ever know who the true person is? Particularly because life is a journey in “finding one’s self” and change, so if the person is constantly changing how is the person ever able to be nailed down as one thing, or one particular way, therefore everything we are, or appear to be is just a charade, a series of choices, and changes as we move through life and discovery.
Even in this clown image where the clown is apparently naked we are at once aware that though she is projecting herself as naked, and exposed for the world to see in all her imperfections, she is actually wearing a body suit designed to appear that she is exposing herself when really she is fully covered. And yet still we look at this little girl clown as if she wear naked, staring at the pubic region and strange breasts, and even though we know they are fake and designed to be odd and unnatural we can’t help but judge them and laugh.
Even though she is “exposed” we notice quite clearly and definitely that she is still showing herself to us in the way that she wants to as she wears a full face of make up and looks directly at you while you look at her. She invites you to look at there carefully composed self, which is not actually herself at all but rather a made up character that she portrays to us. We are at her mercy as much as she is at ours. And even though she is shown as an innocent and an impressionable young girl (because of her teddy and pigtails as well as the childlike way she kneels) we can see that because of how composed and thought out this pose and costume are, that really she is not as impressionable or innocent as we might have thought.
Its like any idea that we get about the sitters in any of Sherman’s portraits have to be deemed untrue because all the elements of the seemingly complete and cohesive image contradict other elements and therefore confuse us about the sitters.
I was quite amazed with the portraits and a little taken back by the intensity of the eyes around the room watching me. These people (such like the photo above) are part of a distinct group. They belong together and you, the viewer, don’t belong with them. Its like they are judging you from their typecast world that somehow you don’t belong in. The images had a way of making me feel a little insecure. Maybe it was because of their large scale , or their self important frames (all over sized and decorative), or maybe because they seemed to be in a world which I wasn’t in. Here I am standing outside the frame in the gallery, and though their gaze was intense and seemed to break the barrier of the photo the viewer could never enter their space, and they could never enter the viewers’ space. We were at once cut off from these people and yet included in their world.
You could almost make out what they were saying to you or to each other about you. The sharpness of the photos added an element that was more real than real life. They were so crisp that they seemed to be more part of this world than what we are, or what we feel. It seriously had the effect of making you realise your feelings of inadequacy. But then you couldn’t help but disregard these feelings as you realise that these people are ridiculous, that you would never want to be these people standing their, clearly showing their feelings of insecurity even while they look like they have it together in their cliques. The two women above standing there apparently mocking you watching them, look identical and so they should, they are the same person – literally. But this is reminiscent of the way we will follow a particular trend, the way that we will imitate one another and others to fit in, and yet this makes us fit out (is that a thing – it is now…) of what we ourselves truly are. But then how can we find ourselves when we are so busy trying to find how we relate to others?
These self portraits are people that we each recognise from society. Or at least we know the type. We laugh at the imperfections that have been put on show for us to stare at and to laugh about. Sherman’s work is so funny, its playful, ironic, sarcastic, honest, scary, truthful and so many other things. It talks about so many issues, and so many ideas, it talks about humans, society, the search for self, the creation of art, the creation of self, among other things.
The people in the portraits have all composed themselves to present themselves in a certain way to whoever the intended viewer/s of the photo were meant to be (imagine the photo given to a lover to remember her by, or the photo that parents keep of a long lost child, or the photo that an aged woman keeps with her to remember herself in her prime by). The irony of these works is that Sherman is presenting herself to represent these women. She has composed her own make up, body shape, clothing and posture represent a particular person. Looking at each image as separate from the rest, or even as a group it is hard to see each person as the same person, they all seem to have their own personalities, stories, and appearances, and yet (because you know what Sherman is about) you know that these are all the same person, pretending to be someone else, the same way we might be a different person every day at different times of the day. I’m someone different at work than I am at home. I’m different when I am making art than when I am playing with my daughter. At every moment of every day I am someone different, the very fact that I think and make conscious decisions about my behaviour, and the way I react to things means that constantly I am reflecting my own personality in the way I want to portray myself to the world, or to myself in that particular time and place.
Even if you didn’t know what Sherman does to create her art it would be easy to guess that something is off about each of these people. Their make up is just a little heavy in places, or their wig isn’t sitting quite right, their clothes don’t fit in the right places, or as in the picture above and to the right you can clearly see the breast plate that she is wearing. All of these things are designed to make you feel a little uneasy about these people and to question your identity and the identity of others and how we construct identity and push an identity onto others.
This exhibition is truly amazing. There is so much to see in every single image, and I would suggest that even though photos can be recreated fairly accurately in a book or on a screen I would suggest that there is nothing that could compare to having stood in front of these images in the way Sherman intended them to be seen (at full scale and with the correct colouring and lighting). If you have a chance you must go to this exhibition!