Glamour be gone

Photographer Cindy Sherman takes a shot at debunking the beauty myth.

In 1983, Cindy Sherman pissed off the editors at French Vogue. She had been commissioned by Dorothée Bis, a French fashion company, to provide photographs of herself wearing their designs. Sherman, best known for photographing herself as various stock female characters from old B movies, was expected to provide the magazine with "happy, funny, goofy" pictures. What she gave them instead were dejected scenes of herself appearing severely wrinkled, battered, and unkempt, even psychotic.


Seattle Art Museum through January 24

This is the kind of Cindy Sherman work I find most intriguing: images that offer an antithesis to glamour ads and that depart from her previous work, the celebrated Untitled Film Stills (1977­80), which were purchased last year by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $1 million. The French Vogue photos can be seen as a turning point in her career. Rather than evoking desire and nostalgia in the viewer, they prompt revulsion. In a 1997 interview with curator Noriko Fuku, Sherman recalled thinking at the time, "I've really got to do something to rip open the French fashion world."

The Seattle Art Museum's new exhibit of Sherman's work, "Allegories," emphasizes her challenging, ballsy side. Considering that there's a prominent Sherman show of 158 pieces currently traveling on an international tour, SAM manages to do very well with this smaller exhibit of 34 works.

Curator of modern art Trevor Fairbrother has organized the show non-chronologically, opting to hit viewers right away with three large-scale color prints that were done in the early '80s. There is Cindy as fashion victim, wrapped in a black-and-red jacket; a spoof of a Renaissance-style painting with Cindy as pious queen mother offering a fake, grapefruit-sized breast to her baby; and Cindy in a long, scraggly black wig and bulky plastic nose, looking humorously like a punk adolescent boy of the Spinal Tap variety.

On the opposite side of the wall is a specially commissioned exhibit of comic panels by Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio. Their work uses Sherman's photos as a starting point, and extends them out into fairy-tale-like narratives. Ironically, this turns the Stills into a movie, of sorts. For example, Untitled no. 15 is used to depict a mother who tells her daughter to do her chores. The daughter refuses and goes to visit a mysterious woman, named Frau Trude (Untitled no. 297), despite being forbidden to do so. In the end, the girl is turned into wood by Frau Trude.

Sherman once declared, "The world is so drawn toward beauty that I became interested in things that are normally considered grotesque or ugly. . . . It seems boring to me to pursue the typical idea of beauty, because that is the easiest or the most obvious way to see the world." "Allegories" is not a comprehensive retrospective, but it captures this sentiment as well as the feminist edginess of Sherman's career.

There are 14 black-and-white Untitled Film Stills, including the more popular ones of the martini-swilling temptress (no. 7), blond librarian (no. 13), and buxom babe by the window (no. 15). Like movie characters, the Stills are seductive; lots of leg, cleavage, and mysterious sunglasses render a sheen of glamour in these scenes. This is the case even when the women depicted aren't supposed to be starlets—as in the case of Untitled no. 35, which depicts a lower-class woman in an apron in a dirty apartment. She's got her hand on her hip, and the camera looks up to her, following the line of her legs.

Sherman was only 23 when she began the Stills. Her youth shows: The series seems narcissistic, as if the artist, while playing dress-up, was herself seduced by glamour.

When Sherman moved to color photography in 1980, her work took on another level of meaning. This is partly due to change in format: The later series are processed in bright chromogenic print and are several times larger in scale than the Film Stills. Sherman's examination of female images also became more critical and aggressive. While the Film Stills glamorized its subjects, the color photographs mock the types on which they are based. Makeup is globbed onto the face; fine clothes appear sloppy or ridiculous; and artificial boobs are blatantly fake. The pictures tackle our culture's beauty myths head-on—they reveal the cost of our obsession to prettify the body.

One such piece is the striking Untitled no. 175, which shows a pool of vomit on a beach towel. Littered next to the vomit are half-eaten cupcakes and doughnuts. Sherman is a small reflection in a pair of sunglasses: a prostrate woman, head on the ground, mouth gaping.

Seeing the pictures firsthand, one can't help being fascinated by technical questions: How did Sherman manage to make her spoofs of old masters paintings look like real paintings, with green and red undertones that appear like layers of old paint? How did she make her face look so convincingly bulky in a picture that depicts her as a fat friar? Even: Where did she hide her shutter-release cable? (Sherman shot most of her pictures by herself with her camera on a tripod and a 20-foot shutter-release cable she hand-clicked or stepped on.)

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