Cindy Sherman, SF MOMA and the Drag Artists by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Whilst roadtripping around America this summer, I was extremely fortunate to pay a visit to the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the San Francisco MOMA. As an Art History student and a feminist, this was pretty much my perfect exhibition. Cindy Sherman is undoubtedly one of the most incredible and influential contemporary artists and if you didn’t know her before, then this is the moment to change that.

My first impression of the San Francisco MOMA was how beautiful architecturally the building was. It blew the dusty old National Gallery out of the water. I perused the permanent exhibitions before the retrospective, deciding to save the best until last.

But onwards to Cindy, the exhibition started with the complete collection of her early work, “Untitled Film Stills.” Eerie self-portraits where Sherman herself is the both the artist and the model, every inch the actress dressed in a variety of different personas, poses and positions. The domesticated sex goddess. The blonde film noir bombshell. The seemingly carefree starlet at the seaside. All 69 of these black-and-white photographs are hugely important for a number of reasons; they act as a parody of Hollywood, a dissemination of the traditional roles offered to women, a refusal of the clichés and characters that created a construct of femininity that pulsated through popular culture. It was incredible to see these tiny portraits all together in one room. Sherman was utterly, almost unnervingly, convincing in every image.

The other works that really spoke to me were the large scale colour grotesques. Cut-off, limbless torsos, rotting blood and entrails that shouted and screamed at you from the canvas. I couldn’t help thinking of Julia Kristeva and the concept of abjection. What was most interesting were the disgusted, yet curiously interested, faces of the spectators. In fact, I sat and watched the reactions for a bit. People walked quickly through this room, as if not wanting to seem too interested in the shocking and gruesome images. Yet, I loved them. Again, it seemed Sherman was breaking down that accepted image of femininity- in order to be ‘proper’ women, we must be pure, clean and hygienic. Despite that every day we deal with the same old shit (literally) as men that comes from our bodies, we must  pretend to be the ‘fairer’ gender.

I passed through the room of creepy clowns to my final favourite room. “Untitled #463” and the other gigantic photos showed Sherman again dressed up as different characters, all middle-aged, seemingly rich mature women. The harsh lines of lip liner, carefully coloured-in eyebrows and heavily styled hair looked sad and pointless. It appeared these women were so desperate to cling on to their diminishing looks, to conform every stereotype of western beauty that despite their apparent wealth and riches, the masks of makeup were hiding a hollow and desperate plea. I vowed to myself then that when the time comes, I shall grow old gracefully and proudly display every line and wrinkle on my face. We shall see.

I am writing this piece now (about two months after my visit) as I discovered today, after wasting a few hours idly on the internet, about Fauxnique, a group of Drag artists, who have re-enacted the portraits form Sherman’s show. These four images are a celebration of the retrospective, a clever nod to Sherman’s representations, making you do a double-take. My favourite image is the ‘Cheetos’ packet, where the fluorescent colour of the model’s skin mimics the sickly orange of the crisps. The gesture appears child-like, as she cradles the packet to her chest as a young girl might cuddle a teddy-bear. Despite the brash statement of her skin, there is something fragile and vulnerable about this pose. The drag artists take Sherman’s work a step further, she challenged the damaging construct of femininity and through this re-enactment, these artists are challenging gender stereotypes that still exist even today. A poignant homage.






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