this is the authenticity of absurdity
*Cindy Sherman's work did not resonate with me when I first encountered it four years ago. By "resonate" I mean I did not care for her work the way I care for Mark Steinmetz's photographs or Lieko Shiga's images, images that have been usurped by my consciousness because I believe they are as a part of my life as they are of the photographers who created them. I thought I understood the basic gist of Sherman's work: the theatricality, the drama, the self-consciousness, and the alienation, but looking back, I realize I had merely taken a glance and then looked away.
*On a recent visit to a retrospective on her work at the MOMA, I spent an entire afternoon with four decades of her work. Spending this amount of time just observing and pondering is like taking a swim in an artist's consciousness. It takes this kind of investment for me to actively engage in a mental wrestle with an artist's work, rather than let it be a fleeting sensation or afterthought.
*The MOMA retrospective traces her work from the 1970s to the present and includes 170 photographs, with focus on her key series, including "Untitled Film Stills" (1977-1980), her history portraits (1989-90), and her society portraits (2008). Though her "Untitled Film Stills" are smaller in size, her more recent work is larger-than-life, whose highly saturated and contrasting palette magnifies the grotesque nature of the ideals and types she portrays.
*I want to talk about Sherman's later work, the less famous work that followed "Untitled Film Stills," because upon seeing these works I was able to understand her previous works better. Some of these works are at first glance disgusting and unnatural. There is a historical portrait in which Sherman is dressed up as a busty medieval woman. She wears fake rubbery breasts that hang limply off her chest, a barely visible stream of milk spraying from her nipple. There are portraits of society women dressed in flashy, metallic colors; these are images you wish were caricatures but aren't. Some photographs are sans Sherman in them, messy images of vomit and debris that are suggestive of dark but familiar narratives that elude our day-to-day conversation. We are disgusted at first because these images invade our consciousness even though we often ignore these kinds realities to preserve our own identities. It's easier to evade the absurd tragedies that surround us than to be okay with the dissonance that the absurdities cause. The subversiveness of these images becomes palpable when we realize that this absurdity is a tangible reality.
*The hyperbolic self-costuming and makeup are intentional. That grotesque artifice in plain view is magnetizing and alluring; it turns viewers into voyeurs, with the same affectations of reality TV. On one hand, we sense a difference in the image, an aura that rebels against our sense of cultural propriety. On the other, we recognize this grotesque artifice within ourselves and identify with what we see. This recognition is polarizing: it can be the realization that leads to embrace or the rejection that leads to repression.
*In some ways, the entire exhibit felt like one big hallucination, which is an irony unto itself because the very definition of a hallucination eludes self-awareness. But if the definition of a hallucination is the perception of an absent stimulus, then it very well makes sense that there was part of me that wanted to believe it was a hallucination, even as it was one of the most surprisingly real photography exhibits I've seen in a long time.