I like going to museums. I like looking at the famous things and the not-so-famous things. I like the atmosphere one often finds in museums, something akin to an arboretum, library and laboratory all in one. One of Macalester’s most seductive qualities when I was applying was its proximity to some of the meccas of the visual and performing arts. High on this list was the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. World renowned for its contemporary art collections and exhibits, the Walker just closed a comprehensive retrospective exhibit of Cindy Sherman’s.
Sherman is a contemporary American photographer who is famous for her staged self portraits. These self portraits, however, are not made to represent Sherman, but rather, they usually depict fictitious, stereotyped women who have risen from the recesses of our pop culture imaginations.
The earliest work on display was a three minute stop motion video she made for her senior exhibit at Buffalo State College. In the video a paper doll made from photographs of the artist peruses a book of doll clothes before selecting a dress to wear. One of her most famous series, Untitled Film Stills, from the late seventies was also included. This series consists of 69 black and white photos in which the artist poses as different women in a 1950s, film noir style. Another series called Centerfolds/Horizontals from 1981 feature large, color, horizontal images of visibly distressed women, all portrayed by the artist, who seem to be coping with various mental and emotional agonies and threats.
As I moved away from Centerfolds/Horizontals I was introduced to a large number of her color and even digital works. These works were less subtle than her earlier works seeming almost clownish in appearance. These more recent works often used prosthetics and excessive makeup. The last room of the exhibit is filled with some of her current work and consists of digital photographs where the artist has used photoshop extensively. These portraits seem to have reverted to a more subtle nature and feature the artist as an aged woman living, as expressed in each photo, a drastically different life.
As I’ve mentioned, I like, might even love, going to museums. I love looking at the wide array of expressions, marks, colors, textures. I like letting my thoughts and feelings be manipulated by the work of others. That said, I do not like being asked, “What did you think of the exhibit?” While I undoubtedly form my own opinions on almost every piece of art, I find that more often than not, especially at Macalester, I am expected to have deep, meaningful, post-colonial thoughts on everything that I let my eyes explore. This is not to say that there isn’t work that, with shocking clarity and visual acuity, rocks the perceived foundations I rest on (see the current Law Warshaw exhibit Ornament and Crime for example), but rather sometimes all that I think about when I see a body of work is, “that looks like fun.”
Sherman’s work addresses complex issues of identity by changing her look dramatically with only subtle manipulations of makeup, lighting, setting and costume. She also looks like she’s just having a lot of fun exploring other people’s lives and taking on characters. Some of her works are grotesque, some are humbling and some are amusing. But ask me what I thought about when I looked at her work and I’ll probably respond, “I just want to go paint my face, dress up and play pretend again.”