A lot of modern and contemporary art is about the sense of self. Cindy Sherman, who works almost exclusively using herself as a model, is, unquestionably, about identity. And as such, I feel authorized to reflect on her work in relation to… myself.
Florence’s Gucci Museo is hosting an exhibit of Cindy Sherman’s Early Works. As I stood there at the opening, looking at the small-format black and white photographic series, I had a flashback to first-year university. The two series shown here, Murder Mystery People and Bus Riders, are from 1976, the year Sherman graduated from college at Buffalo State. 1976, while she was experimenting with a photographic concept that would set the stage for her entire career, I was born. Roughly twenty years later, actually in 1994, I was in first year university at York University, and one of the first lessons in that first term of art history was on – you guessed it – Cindy Sherman. Fast forward another roughly twenty years (well, to be precise, 19) and I’m confronted with memories of how I was forced, that first year, to deal with my own sense of identity as an art historian and as a photographer.
The art history course in question was not memorable. I don’t remember the professor’s name, nor many specifics, only that everything she taught had an either feminist or semiotics angle, and neither these nor any other form of theory ever appealed to me (so much that I chose my subsequent universities on their very lack of theoretical instruction). But, for some reason, certain facts about Cindy Sherman stuck in my head. She has always photographed herself, but does not do self portraits. She leaves deliberate traces of the photographic process in her early works, like the cords and shadows we see in the series exhibited here. Her work questions reality, femininity, and the self.
The post-university photographs exhibited at Gucci Museo are textbook illustrations of what I retained from that long-ago lecture. As with almost all of Sherman’s works, the single photo is often nothing spectacular (this is very true of these youthful experiments, while later works are technically much better); significance and value comes from evaluating the work as a whole, that is, the series. Let’s look at these two series, with the words of the curator to guide us. I have selected my favourites and assembled them to give you a sense of their serial nature.
Murder Mystery People, 1976 (reprinted 2000) is a story narrated through stereotypical characters based on an imaginary crime movie. The story is centred on a 1930’s has-been actress who falls in love with the movie’s director. The immediacy of photography conveys the characters with a mixture of delight, cruelty and humour. The initial body of work was storyboarded as a film and the characters were shown as cutouts, which included 82 scenes, hung around the exhibition space like a mini movie.
Bus Riders 1976 (reprinted 2000) was originally created for the first Photo Bus exhibition exhibited on Metro Bus 535. Acting out the typical every day characters found riding a bus, Sherman’s use of detail persuades us to confront and absorb her narrative. By transforming herself with the use of facial expressions and poses she creates an immediate distinction between each character. The link between film (which she studied at college) and performance is not to be underestimated and was crucial in developing her unique working narrative.
A third work is represented in this exhibit with some reprinted stills from a film that Sherman made in her last year of university, shown in its entirety below.
For anyone interested in reviewing Sherman’s entire career, I suggest dedicating an hour to the website of the recent retrospective at the MOMA (Jan-June 2012), where this film was projected.
If Michelangelo was such a great painter that – if you believe Vasari – anyone who came directly after him struggled with an inferiority complex, the same can be said of studying photography any time after Cindy Sherman. For the faculty at my college, who had come of age with Cindy Sherman, she provided a unit of measure for all contemporary art, and especially for photography. Unfortunately, all first year photography courses include the dreaded “self-portrait” assignment. No undergrad could ever get a high grade in this because any attempt to photograph ourselves in costume and then back it up with theory would fall short of the depth achieved by Sherman in twenty years of this process. (Students photographing themselves nude fared not much better, for other reasons.) Perhaps it was this trauma that made me remember Cindy Sherman all these years.
The temporary exhibit at Gucci Museum is part of a series of small, contemporary shows curated by Francesca Amfitheatrof from the collection of Francois Pinault. Unlike in past exhibits, the small dark space of the ex-chapel has been revealed to have windows onto Piazza della Signoria and has been painted minimalist white. As always, the number of works offered is small, though worth going in to take a long look. As I enjoyed the Paul Fryer exhibit last year, reviewed here, I also recommend going in to see Cindy Sherman – just a few photos, but ones that require quite some time and reflection to digest.
Cindy Sherman: Early Works
January 20 – June 9 2013
Gucci Museo – 10, Piazza della Signoria – Florence
Opening hours: seven days a week from 10 am to 8 pm
Admission is 6 Euros with 50% of each ticket sale benefitting to help the City of Florence preserve and restore the city’s signature art treasures.
With thanks to Yigit and the social media department at Gucci for the invitation to see and review this exhibit.
All photos courtesy of Gucci Museum, used with permission.