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May 2009

The changing faces of Cindy Sherman

We speak to the chameleon-like photographer about her latest series, in which she becomes a string of fictional, surgically-enhanced socialites

Cindy Sherman Untitled #476 (2008) Photo: courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures and Sprüth Magers Berlin London

Cindy Sherman is the artist of a thousand faces: she can be the girl next door, a film noir heroine, a fashion model, a Flemish Madonna, a mutilated murder victim, a tattooed piece of trailer trash or a circus clown.

For more than 30 years this creative chameleon has photographed herself in multifarious guises in a wide array of representational genres ranging from Old Master painting to schlock horror.

She first attracted attention with her black and white “Untitled Film Stills”, a series Sherman began making in 1977, fresh out of art school in Buffalo, which took the form of promotional shots for films which were both utterly recognisable and completely of her own invention. Since then she has continued to assume multiple roles to investigate notions of gender, beauty and identity in ways which have provided rich fodder for post-Modernists while at the same time transcending the theoretical with their humour, critical acuity and emotional charge. Some of her early pieces are currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the group exhibition, The Picture Generation: 1974-84 which features work by an influential group of New York artists who got their name from the 1977 Pictures show at Artists Space.

In her most recent series, Sherman transforms herself into an array of immaculately coiffed, surgically enhanced socialites, who gaze out of 14 large-scale colour photographs with an arresting mixture of defiance and pathos.

The Art Newspaper: What made you decide to portray these ageing, affluent matrons?

Cindy Sherman: It started in many different directions which all filtered down into these pictures. Some work I had done the previous year looked like shots of people at parties posing for the paparazzi, trying to be the wannabe star and flattered by the attention, so it kind of came from that. Then I saw a video from the 1980s of some has-been soap opera star that I’d never heard of, who was showing how she maintains her amazing looks for her age and how “you can do it too” and they had this shot of her ostentatious, over-the-top living room and there is just the biggest headshot of herself over her couch that you could ever imagine…It just hit home to me that she is all about “me-me-me” and I thought about that kind of modern portraiture which we all see as tacky as opposed to the Old Masters.

Are they modelled on art world patrons?

No they aren’t. Art world people would have the artist of the month over their couch as opposed to portraits of themselves, that would be how they would show off their status.

They seem more complicated than your earlier Hollywood Hamptons series of female types: are you imitating them, parodying them or identifying with them—or maybe a bit of all of the above?

I don’t think I’m making fun of them. With the Hollywood Hampton ladies I was criticised for making fun of these characters, they were sweet and more innocent but here I think there is more of an empathetic thing going on: these ladies aren’t so innocent—not that they are actually guilty of anything… When I started doing the first couple of characters I wasn’t really sure that they were finished and I thought maybe these are just studies for something and part of that was because I felt like I could see a little too much of myself in a terrifying sort of way: I could have been this person… They weren’t as caricatured as some of my other work except that there are two with fake buck teeth—and that was the idea that they were all in the same family, that they had come from the same gene pool.

This series seems to be not only about the images per se, but also the presentation of them. You have deliberately blown them up to a grand Old Master scale and put them into heavy heritage frames.

The reason why I made them so big was because I consciously wanted to make a whole series of gigantic pictures. This came from just thinking about the art world now and how I keep seeing more gigantic things done by men.

Sometimes I’ve never even heard of some artist and I’ll walk into a show and see these huge pieces and I’m thinking to myself, who would buy these? Who could even put these into their living room, except for some collector like [François] Pinault or a museum with gigantic walls? It just seems so pretentious and I’m thinking about a lot of women’s art I know of where you don’t see so many gigantic things.

I keep seeing more gigantic things done by men... It just seems so pretentious and I’m thinking about a lot of women’s art I know of where you don’t see so many gigantic things

Their scale also came from the fact that these are portraits of women trying to make themselves seem larger than life and strong characters but yet there is something so frail and pathetic and sad when you look at them…

But they are still quite exaggerated—their makeup is often very extreme.

Yes, they look like they all have plastic surgery and things like that, which is definitely what I wanted to convey. But as I continued working—and especially when I was projecting them to determine how big I was going to print them—I was struck by how tragic they seemed and suddenly I felt this great empathy for them and I realised that I’m not just poking fun at a certain class of people. I realised that these are people I identify with, maybe because I am getting older and [I’m] a successful person—not that I would necessarily have a real portrait of myself on the wall—but I can see how these women have paid a price for what they are showing off. I don’t know if we all can identify with that but there’s a type of person that wants to succeed so much that they will marry whoever they can just to get to that next level of power.

I realised that these are people I identify with, maybe because I am getting older and [I’m] successful—not that I would have a real portrait of myself on the wall—but I can see how these women have paid a price for what they are showing off

Each figure seems to conjure up a rich back story. Do you have a plot line running through your head when you plan each of these images?

No I don’t—sometimes it will come as I’m working but it really is up in the air. Sometimes the inspiration will come from the costume, or an idea for the makeup might come from some page I ripped out of a magazine but the result is completely different from what I was inspired by and so that changes what the character has become. It also might grow and change and evolve as I’m working; I might start out with one concept and then if it’s not working it will evolve into something completely different so even if I had a narrative in mind, it might not be the one I wind up with. Because I’m shooting digitally I’m going back and forth to the computer to see the results as I’m doing it.

You’ve been working digitally for about five years now. It must make the process much less laborious?

Oh it’s so great! I’ll never go back to using regular film—I’m so happy with digital. In the past I’d have to take all my makeup off, take the film to the lab and go home and wait three hours and then go back and pick up the film—so if I had to re-shoot it, I’d have to redo the makeup and everything and start all over, whereas now I can stay in character and tweak it as I need to.

In the past you’ve also portrayed men—will you do this again?

Ultimately I wanted to do some men for this series too but just never got around to it. But I’d like to do combinations of man and wife, or father and daughter, something like that. It’s harder to shop for [male characters] because obviously its easier to find women’s clothes in my size whereas men’s things I have to get altered. What I really wanted to do more of, and hope to do in subsequent work is to do more group shots like the one of the two sisters. It was really fun and challenging to try to think of ways to make two characters look as if they were somehow related and yet they don’t look the same.

What about making films yourself? Do you see yourself following on from Office Killer, the horror movie you made in 1997?

I still want to. I bought a video camera last year just to put some fire under the inspiration, but the problem is thinking of a narrative. I’ve never been able to think of a clear storyline that I want to portray through that kind of movement. I’m thinking the way I should really approach it is just the way I do with my normal work in my studio, just playing in front of the camera and experimenting with characters, only instead of a still camera I would use a video camera and then perhaps I could figure out a storyline… Who knows whether it would evolve into film in a gallery or another kind of film, but I would like to incorporate movement and the passage of time somehow.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Portraits of the artist as surgically-enhanced society matrons"

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