Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Smoke & Mirrors

I just don't get Cindy Sherman.

For over 30 years, this woman has been producing conceptual photographs that feature herself elaborately costumed and made up to simulate what seem to be female archetypes of everything from brittle socialites to lovelorn spinsters. I've yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of her artistic intent, even from her; she says herself that hopefully her oeuvre is "seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised," but "I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff."

So what is it, then? Always using herself as her canvas, Sherman takes great pains to recreate the hairstyle and costume of whichever character she is trying to inhabit. But nearly every one has a stark, incongruous feature, like Kabuki white-face or heavy dabs of pancake, that calls it out as garish and inauthentic. Is that the point? It seems a thin artistic gimmick, yet it's one that garnered her $3.89 million in 2011 for one print called Untitled #96 (they're all called Untitled Something, as though she's as hesitant to make a clear statement about each work as she is to accurately describe the movement responsible for her tremendous success).

Here's how the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where her latest exhibit opens this weekend, sums up her work: One of the most influential artists of our time, Cindy Sherman creates provocative artworks that explore wide-ranging issues of identity and representation. "Artworks?"

The actress and impresario Tracey Ullman has been seamlessly unspooling and inhabiting similar characters for the past two decades and making all of them -- chain-smoking Hollywood hairdressers, trailer trash grandmothers, Jewish princesses from New Jersey -- walk, talk and entertain in a way that's impressive, moving and hilarious. That's a talent I can get behind.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Courting Disaster

Now that my civic duty has ended, I can finally make some observations about the experience.
  • Television has permanently affected how judges behave. They all try to be funny, or dramatic, or, in the case of mine, Susan Dey.
  • It's really quite a feat, on a morning when the temperature is a perfect 66 degrees, to maintain the climate of a public building at an equatorial level that replicates mid-day in Borneo. You could grow orchids in that court house, and train monkeys to harvest them.
  • The defense attorney in this case did his client a real disservice. Elderly and theatrical, he affected a sort of Southern esquire Inherit the Wind persona of upswept grey hair and tightly-knotted bow tie. He was ill-prepared and relied on courtroom theatrics and smoke screens, and when he started the trial with a dissertation on the defendant's premature birth 32 years ago (quickly objected to by the prosecutor and sustained by the judge) we knew it was going to be a long haul to liberty. There were sidebars a-plenty.
  • Some scientists are astute observers and some make you question their empirical wisdom. The victim in this case was a famous UCSF pathologist who was punched in the face for her iPhone. Her testimony was crisp, exact and clarifying. Her colleague who witnessed the incident had no sense of time (an act that must have taken five seconds was described as a minute-and-a-half long; the attacker, who was 6'2", was described as 5'2"). Let's find out what he's researching and assign that work to someone else before he blows up the city.
  • Today's young prosecutors have terrific PowerPoint skills.
  • The same terrifying, baggy-pantsed thug who would pop a cap in yo' ass on the street transforms into a charming gentleman once he enters the portals of Superior Court. "Excuse me, sir," one said to me, his gold dental grill flashing in the low-wattage institutional lighting as we snaked torward the metal detectors. "I believe you dropped this laundry ticket."
  • When the victim is a woman, the defense will excuse all the female jurors they can because they're more likely to sympathize with a woman being attacked on the street.
So, that's over for another year. But since attorneys love nothing more than to populate their jury boxes with former Catholic altar boys like me, however lapsed, I'm sure I'll serve again.