Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life; Wexner Center for the Arts; Columbus, Ohio; September 16–December 31, 2017

Review by Sally Deskins, West Virginia University

Installation view of Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life. Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, September 16-December 31, 2017. Exhibition organized by The Broad, Los Angeles. Photo: Sally Deskins.  

After doing intense research in the area of feminist curating, which often works against the traditional white-walled, chronological, and singular mode of Modernist display, I found that Cindy Sherman’s purposefully inexplicable and linear retrospective at Wexner Center for the Arts proved quite the surprising yet enjoyable paradox.

To be sure, Sherman’s work is well known, and its meaning often perceived as clear. Pieces by Sherman form part of several notable collections, and writing about her work generally recognizes her non-explanatory method of authorship. Nevertheless, seeing her oeuvre all together, each image with its own in-depth character, from detailed costume to makeup and setting, implying a heavy artistic process, and yet presented without any mention of process or artist statement, is truly baffling!

The exhibition starts with her early work, including the well-known Untitled film stills of female archetypes, and some lesser-known work such as the Untitled murder mystery cut-outs (1972-77), which thankfully offer curatorial written context. One juxtaposition, offering an early close up of Sherman’s youthful, emotionless face with palm trees in the background, and a later glamour shot in a bright abstract scene, demonstrates her varied yet ever mysterious presence exemplified throughout the exhibit.

As the Wexner is set up, visitors walk up a long hallway to get to three other gallery rooms. The first on the left presents “Fairy Tales / Disasters / Civil War / Sex Pictures,” grotesque or monstrous works backed by black walls, that add to the dark vibe. One piece depicts a face coming through all sorts of brown goo, a disaster surely challenging the significance of art. One Sex Picture depicts all of the recognized alluring aspects of a woman--legs, vulva, breasts—but renders them as singular, dehumanized items. The face wears a black gas mask with what appears to be a wig, all set amongst red velvet, the juxtaposition of it all tugging and pulling at the viewer’s perspective. A passerby said “disgusting”--while at the same time I was listening to the audio response by Miranda July, who discussed exactly the point of the disgust.

In this room as well, Sherman’s 1997 movie Office Killer is looped; it stars Molly Ringwald, who also gave an audio response to the film, providing rare personal notes to Sherman’s secretive processes. Ringwald recalled that the shoot was characterized by a low-pressure, fun atmosphere, with most of Sherman’s focus on color and framing. The film connects to the popular culture television show The Office, but with particular dark and eerie perspectives.

Moving on down the hallway of the Wexner, the next space on the left involves a return to white walls, and displays several of Sherman’s large Untitled history portraits (1988-1990), a true gem of irony in such an environment of individual genius. Even as we take in these fictionalized portraits of important people, lavished with layers of fanciful fabric and accessories, and royally posed, we know that they are all actually Sherman. Even in the absence of written statements or hints to her process or ideas, the oxymoron of challenging the institution while being inside the institution seems clear.

The last gallery space presents some of Sherman’s most recent work, depicting more down-to-earth figures, alongside extravagant portraits. Though the women don’t smile overtly, as Jaime Lee Curtis notes in her audio response, they all seem to be “beautiful and happy.”

Other series presented include fashion portraits, center folds and clowns. The newer works are created with overtly digitally produced landscapes, indicating the evolution of her process, even if she doesn’t disclose it in accompanying text, notes or process shots. Someday, perhaps her process will become known and part of an exhibit to let us in; or, her presentations of self will remain ironic, mysterious individual presences reflecting the viewer’s own perspectives of whoever these characters may be. Or maybe, without context, the images work will remain ironically one-dimensional.
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Sally Deskins is Exhibits Coordinator for West Virginia University Libraries. She obtained a Master in Arts in art history from WVU where she received three awards for her research on the curating of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Deskins is a writer, artist and curator focusing on women, feminism and curatorial issues in the arts. She blogs at femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com.