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Cindy Sherman's Cinematic Cosmos

"Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life" at The Broad (header image)
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Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #92," 1981.
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #92," 1981. Chromogenic color print. 24 x 48 inches. © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

If you live in Los Angeles, and don’t work in the film industry, it could be relatively easy to forget our proximity to Hollywood. Sure, the yellow production location signs pointing toward film sets might catch your eye, or you could find yourself behind Maggie Gyllenhaal in line at Trader Joe’s, but our deepest emotional connection might be seeing familiar downtown streets crack apart while watching “San Andreas” in an air conditioned theater. 

Philipp Kaiser, curator of The Broad museum’s blockbuster special exhibit, “Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life,” wishes to bring that connection back to the downtown streets by way of the artist’s movie-like photographs. In fact, Kaiser proposed to Sherman that she focus the show on the “cinematic quality” of her work. Sherman approved. “She embraced the idea,” said Kaiser in a press conference before the show’s opening. Indeed, the agreed upon title, “Imitation of Life,” comes from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama.

Though she’s a New York artist, Sherman’s work has had a consistent basis in filmic cant since her early photographs from the late 1970s. Much has been made of her transformative ability -- let’s compare her to a character actor, one that can reflect or absorb a highly distinct number of archetypes. In the photographs, she can disappear into the character, and if an alien from another planet were to view the works, they might think each featured a different woman. Even her latest works are portraits done in the style of glamour shots of silent film stars from the 1920s.

Beyond the obvious actorly aspect, Sherman is noted for consistently confronting the male gaze, a term that was coined by a film theorist, Laura Mulvey. 

 Installation of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life exhibition." | Photo: Ben Gibbs_4
Installation view of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life" at the The Broad. | Photo: Ben Gibbs.

Sherman’s breakthrough series, “Untitled Film Stills,” is her most manifestly cinematic work. In the photographs, made from 1977 through 1980, Sherman stars as herself in the conventional roles women were cast as in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Imitation of Life” features 16 of these stills for movies never made, showing Sherman as a litany of female filmic archetypes: the vamp, the bombshell, the femme fatale, the housewife, the girl on the run, the jilted lover.

It’s long been said that Sherman’s great ability was one of reaction, to react to the male gaze with images that reframe the stereotypes in order to wrest their power. This is why it’s surprising that several images in the show depict Sherman in blackface. Examples of this appear in the “Bus Riders” series, which critics like Margo Jefferson of the New York Times have pointed out as problematic. 

“The blacks are all exactly the same color, the color of traditional blackface makeup,” Jefferson famously wrote in a review of “Playing on Black and White: Racial Messages Through a Camera Lens” at the International Center for Photography in 2005. “They all have nearly the same features, too, while Ms. Sherman is able to give the white characters she impersonates a real range of skin tones and facial features. This didn't look like irony to me. It looked like a stale visual myth that was still in good working order.”

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #70," 1980.
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #70," 1980. Chromogenic color print. 20 x 24 inches. © Cindy Sherman Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

More consistently, when Sherman responds with consciousness to outside influences in a cinematic way, the results are outstanding. Selections from her lushest series, “Disasters and Fairy Tales” and “Sex Pictures” are featured in an exhibition room at “Imitation of Life.” In these images, Sherman’s work makes a statement with unrelenting takes on beauty, how lore plays a role in image making, and, again, the male gaze. 

These portraits have a saturated stillness to punctuate their eerie narratives, as technically formal as a Gregory Crewdson image, and they are powerfully cinematic. Sherman appears most deeply indebted to film in these images.

Sherman’s interest in cinema led her to make “Office Killer,” a feature-length horror-comedy film for Miramax in 1997 starring Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, and Jeanne Tripplehorn (the film will screen during the exhibition). And Sherman herself makes a cameo in John Waters’ 1998 film about a contemporary art photographer, “Pecker.” Jamie Lee Curtis, Miranda July, and Gaby Hoffman join Waters and Ringwald as voices on the exhibition audio tour, espousing on Sherman’s innate acting ability, directing style, and connection to Hollywood. Sofia Coppola contributes to the show’s catalog.

Sherman brings us closer to cinema than maybe anyone else, even cinema-obsessed, multimedia artist Francesco Vezzoli. Sherman understands that Hollywood is a reflection of society, writ in coded language, and a reflection back on Hollywood further decrypts that dialectic. In a sense, the show is a sort of “imitation of 'Imitation of Life'.”

Cindy Sherman, "The photographer Cindy Sherman in a rare pose as herself."
A self-portrait by Cindy Sherman. © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #122," 1983
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #122," 1983. Chromogenic color print. 35 1/4 x 21 1/4 inches. © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.
 Installation of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life exhibition." | Photo: Ben Gibbs_7
Installation view of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life" at the The Broad.  | Photo: Ben Gibbs.
 Installation of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life exhibition." | Photo: Ben Gibbs.
Installation view of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life" at the The Broad.  | Photo: Ben Gibbs.
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #512," 2010/2011.
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #512," 2010/2011. Chromogenic color print. 79 3/4 x 136 7/8 inches. © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled Film Still #47," 1979.
Cindy Sherman, "Untitled Film Still #47," 1979. Gelatin silver print. 8 x 10 inches. © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

Exhibition "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life" runs from June 11-October 2 at The Broad museum.

Top image: Installation view of "Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life" at the The Broad. | Photo: Ben Gibbs.


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