What would you do if you were one of the most iconic artists in the world, having forged a name for yourself with unmistakably recognizable work? What do you do to move forward? You can reject all that has made you famous, continue to churn out the tried and true, take a page from Duchamp’s book and take up chess or try and build upon your former practice to create something relevant and new…
In her latest solo exhibition at Sprüth Magers in London, Cindy Sherman seems to be attempting the latter.
While Sherman is still photographing herself in a range of various guises, she has decidedly broken free of the frames that constrict her former work and has blown up photographs of an eclectic cast of characters to create a larger than life sized tableaux that extends throughout the two spaces of the gallery.
The murals plaster the rooms like wallpaper, an effect furthered by the illustrative black and white backdrop, reminiscent of a Victorian woodlands as interpreted through home decor. And inhabiting the space is a strange and unnerving troupe that are very difficult to define…
Sherman’s work often depicts recognizable stereotypes: the stars of her famous ‘Untitled Film Stills,’ the Renaissance figures and clowns that followed and most recently in her 2008 series, the aging American socialite. However, we have also witnessed disconcerting and gruesome images, particularly in the Fairy Tales and Disasters series of the 1980s.
The figures we see at Sprüth Magers are neither familiar nor horrific; they are simply bizarre. Banished to a colorless forest, these poorly-dressed characters from folklore, fairytales and literature, appear as a cast of rejects. Too strange to be of use. Or perhaps, not strange enough.
On one wall there is the woman in a peasant-like floral dress, covered in a sheer boudoir wrap with a visible broken foot. An amalgamation of styles that makes you unable to place her in any particular time and place. Next to her stands a figure in an slumpy naked suit, feet in wool socks and brandishing a plastic sword. In the next room a knight in a tunic too big, paired with metallic zebra print trousers and a circus juggler in a dated costume and decidedly twenty-first century sneakers.
The figures do not sit in their setting, but are rather float on top of it, as if cut and pasted into this strange place. Perhaps it is this quality, this sense of flatness and dislocation, that recalls a favorite Sherman work, the 1975 animation Doll Clothes. However instead of a miniature Cindy we have giant figures, far too big for the space, that stare directly out over us, expressionless.
The heavy makeup that characterizes Sherman’s transformation of herself is gone – replaced instead with subtle digital manipulations used to contort her face. Topical alterations are replaced with structural ones – in the way that plastic surgery has become the preferred method over cosmetics to achieving the desired ‘natural‘ look.
Sherman’s work is undeniably iconic. As one of the most successful artists of the past decades there is an immense amount of pressure to continually produce something new. As these figures break out of their frames inhabiting the entire space and spilling out into the street through the Sprüth Magers window, Sherman attempts to break down her own formula – or at least bend it ever so slightly. For not abiding by the tried and true, Cindy – I applaud you, even if it is not my favorite work – I think I prefer vomit and vacuousness over vagueness.