A work of art earns its merit when it elicits response. Revere them or revile them, Cindy Sherman’s photographs are memorable, and to truly view them is to engage with the material. While her meaning may be complex and often ambiguous, she is never one for passivity, and the exhibition on display through 14 September at the Kunsthaus Zurich delivers food for thought.
Challenging the Media’s Portrayal of Women
Dubbed “Untitled Horrors”, the retrospective, which was painstakingly compiled by the museum in collaboration with the artist herself, makes a daring leap into the realm of the grotesque and macabre. Sherman (1954–) first made a name for herself as an American photographer in 1977, with the release of her series “Complete Untitled Film Stills”, which challenged the media’s portrayal of women. One black and white photograph from the series shows a woman (Sherman herself, who served as the sole model for all of her photographs) descending a flight of stairs, seemingly in a hurry. The framing, lighting, and characterization create the effect of simulating a Hitchcock scene, though such an image doesn’t actually exist in his films. Sherman simply knows how to evoke the same feeling. The suspense and tension in her photographs are as much a part of what is shown, and what is left for a viewer to imagine. Her themes include a series of clown portraits, as well as images of dolls, and recreations of fairy tale scenes that are even more grim than Brothers Grimm could have envisioned.
For the past four decades, Sherman has challenged the media’s definitions of beauty, sexuality, and the role of women in society
She’s an innovator with what must be a wicked sense of humour (and, coming from Boston, I’m free to use the term wicked rather ambiguously). While Sherman’s work could easily qualify as “creepy”, I found myself delighted by the opportunity to create my own imagined stories from the clues she artfully presents. Each photograph is highly innovative and well executed. She leaves space for interplay with the audience, and I feel myself invited to participate. In addition, by using herself as a universal subject, she achieves the ultimate ability to transmit a message through her gestures and features, often comically endearing. Each character that Sherman powerfully represents is oddly familiar, and it’s ultimately this recognition, of humanity and a uniting force, that wins me over. Truly, she’s a marvel.
Exhibition Website: www.kunsthaus.ch