Going to See Cindy Sherman at the MoMA

Ladies, go see Cindy Sherman’s huge retrospective at the MoMA and let me know if you can imagine her saying, like the rest of us do constantly, “Oh no, erase that, I look terrible in that picture.” Cindy Sherman — the Glen Ridge-born, Long Island-raised photographer of worldwide fame — looks terrible in a lot of pictures, and it’s quite on purpose. The much bigger-than-life mural photos that guard the entrance to the show are case in point. In one she wears a bland expression, along with a loose-fitting nude suit outfitted with cherry-topped bulging breasts and a brown triangle meant to mimic pubic hair.  She holds a sword, phallically pointed up. The suit fits like a child’s pajamas. She doesn’t just look ridiculous; the outfit makes her look genderless and chubby.

As we are told repeatedly, both by docents and the museum’s audio tour, Cindy Sherman may be the model in all her photographs, but these are not self-portraits. “Rather than explorations of inner psychology,” curator Eva Respini writes in the show’s catalogue, “her pictures are about the projection of personas and stereotypes that are deep-seated in our shared cultural imagination.”  These personas and stereotypes range from clowns to sexual victims, from ingenues to motorcycle chicks, and on a Thursday morning tour, we were encouraged to impose our own interpretations on them.

For me, the exercise was all about projecting Sherman’s Glen Ridge roots onto her photographs, or at least projecting my theories about Sherman’s Glen Ridge roots, and I was richly rewarded by my favorite series — the enormous society portraits photographed in 2008, shortly before the financial collapse.

Donning Callista-worthy wigs, encrusted with pancake makeup meant to emphasize rather than hide fine-line wrinkles, and wearing tight-lipped expressions bespeaking matronly power, these portraits depict “women of a certain age” — and it is not hard to imagine some of them lunching at the Glen Ridge Country Club.

Our group spent quite a lot of time in front of one society portrait, Untitled #469 (2008), in which the imposing matron was framed by very Glen Ridge-esque oak trees. It was easy to imagine the subject of this photo as a very daunting mother of a bride, and I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t want to be either her new son-in-law or the wedding planner in her employ. I also fantasized that this might have been one version of the woman Sherman might have become, had her parents remained in Glen Ridge, had she not enjoyed playing dress-up as kid, had she not enrolled in art school…

MoMA is open every day except for Tuesdays and the Cindy Sherman exhibit goes through June 11. Regular admission is $25 and the Sherman show does not require an additional ticket. Try to find a tour or pick up the free audio tour, and budget several hours. For more information, go to MoMA’s website.

Meanwhile, if you’ve been, tell us what you thought.

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  1. I love Ms. Sherman’s photographs – I prefer the more subtle ones that are still oddly subversive.

    When I first saw Liz Earls’ photographs (again, I tend to prefer the more subtle ones), a rather odd analogy popped into my head:

    Liz Earls : Cindy Sherman : : King Tut (the Batman Villain) : Professor William McElroy

  2. This is insulting both to Glen Ridge and to Cindy Sherman’s work. Sherman’s work addresses a much larger scope than Glen Ridge, not to mention that this is unfair to female Glen Ridge residents who do not identify with the comparison you draw between us and the society portraits. As someone who loves Sherman’s work, I think that the show addresses an impressive range of female, and in a larger sense, overall societal stereotypes.

    The fact that Sherman is the subject of every image goes to show how one person can address an enormous range of gender constructions that have endured despite decades of change and progress. To say that Sherman’s society portraits are representations of what she might have been “had she not enrolled in art school,” or had she not left Glen Ridge, is to make an assumption about the artist that completely misses the point of her work. Whether or not she had stayed in Glen Ridge is irrelevant speculation.

    I understand that this review is the result of an exercise where you impose your own interpretations on her work, but it is wrong to say that her work represents what Sherman may have become, had she not left Glen Ridge. The reason her work is appreciated on an international level is for its universality, not for its projection of “Glen Ridge roots” onto her photographs. Her “Untitled Film Stills” series goes back farther than her immediate experiences, taking inspiration from Hitchcock classics and classic Hollywood cinema. Her 2008 portraits, which happened to also be one of my favorite points of the exhibit, comment on social hierarchy everywhere that drives women to act this way out of pressure and insecurity. To say that they are representations of Glen Ridge women misses the point of Sherman’s work – it pigeonholes work that is appreciated for its relevance to women all over the world, not just one small town.

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