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.

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