CINDY SHERMAN AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Being born in 1972 I was a little too young to appreciate the artistic precedent that Punk Rock strove to establish in the wake of the Hippy movement that distinguished the halcyon era of the 1960's, an accession which, in having born witness to the increasing popularity of recreational drugs came, upon fruition, to represent something of a cultural impasse, a collision of interests that, in having weathered it’s share of persecution, was ironically inclined to adopt a more aggressive stance than that which had initially served to define it.
Proposing to establish a pragmatic term that, in gleaning insight from unadulterated truth, was to achieve what became known in artistic circles as a “super realist” perspective, Punk openly sought to defy at face value, the agglomeration of aggressive tendencies which had, through association with both heavy metal and motor cycle customization, successfully subverted youth culture away from the pacifist standard that had once granted it license.
Embracing verbal vulgarity, beneath the term that interpersonal exclusivity should amount to no more than spoken aside, a pretext beneath which expletive gestures served, in their manner, as a form of expiation that need not obsessively dwell upon matters of a metaphysical nature, Punk appeared, in courting direct confrontation at street level, to represent a fresh start to a trend that upon the strength of the evidence which had preceded it, risked embarking upon a course of terminal degeneracy.
Although only five years old when the Punk movement began to achieve the momentum for which it subsequently earned renown, a term beneath which it’s curt vulgarity, hostile apparel and disturbingly lucid distaste of all novel affectation, ironically served to inspire me with little more than dread, I came to understand that, in being designed to cater for the contingent of disaffected youths who had, through association with popular culture, been spurned from conservative predilection , Punk was devised to serve as a philosophically irreducible anchor against which to both gauge and restrict the wilder passions of adolescent indiscretion.
Being of an inquisitive disposition with regards to the sweep of the many cultural conventions that had, within reason, served to color my youth, I was in this sense, delighted to learn that London’s “National Portrait Gallery” was in the process of staging an exhibition devoted to the work of “Cindy Sherman”, an artist, who, through coincidence with Punk was observed to have risen to prominence during the late 1970's.
Recorded to have studied for four years at “Buffalo State University College” in New York, a period during which she was witnessed to have achieved a degree of recognition for manipulating photographic images of herself to the effect of creating a striking variety of plausible alter- egos, an instance in which the artist was noted to have been depicted as the entire cast of a play named “Murder Mystery” through association with the completion of her degree course, “Cindy Sherman” was, following her graduation, further observed to have staged an exhibition entitled “Cover Girls” aboard the top deck of a New York bus, a series of pictures that, in featuring images of her face superimposed over those of the glamour models that then appeared upon the covers of popular magazines, served, despite it’s humorous subtext, to question many of the measures taken by the cosmetics industry in efforts to prettify women.
Achieving a degree of recognition for “Cover Girls” “Cindy Sherman” proceeded to embark upon the formulation of perhaps her most celebrated collection of pictures, a series of black and white photographs which, in being christened “Untitled Film Stills”, sought to capture the essence of the “Film-Noir” that had throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s defined popular taste.
Taking the work of directors such as “Alfred Hitchcock” as an example “Untitled Film Stills”, dwelt largely upon the celebrity ethos that was perceived to have evolved in conjunction with the film industry throughout the halcyon era of Hollywood, a term beneath which both men and women were witnessed to achieve a manner of rare distinction in correspondence with a number of marketing strategies that, were in effect, implied to represent a false interpretation of how such people really led their lives.
Depicting images of herself clothed archetypally in the attire that mid twentieth century American glitterati had once found occasion to wear, a term beneath which she became syncretically synonymous with any one of a number of female celebrities who were observed to have furnished the press with incident during the Kennedy era, “Cindy Sherman” was, in “Untitled Film Stills” perceived to expand substantially upon many of the themes that she had developed throughout her college years, a term beneath which the artist paradoxically succeeded in assuming a definite identity for herself.
Following the success of “Untitled Film Stills”, “Cindy Sherman” proceeded to experiment with a number of the rear screen projection techniques employed by many of the American film directors which featured in it’s canon to present the illusion of movement or space within the limited confines of a production studio, a process that, in acquainting her with the range of effects that can be achieved through the exposition of human figures to different light sources, could be successfully incorporated into both still photography and portraiture in efforts to accentuate the focal significance of their object.
Continuing, during the early 1980's, to dwell upon the many contradictions which may be presumed to arise from the prosaic interpretation of celebrity with the creation of two new photographic collections respectively entitled “Centerfolds” and “Pink Robes”, “Cindy Sherman”, gradually began to diverge from the formal interpretation of fame to include images of herself as a host of vulnerable women captured in states of relaxed negligence within her repertoire, a pretext beneath which the cosmetic apparel devised to prettify such people’s demeanor was, in being rendered focal, frequently observed to appear oddly redundant.
Commissioned in 1983 to produce a series of still photographs for the “Jean Paul Gaultier” fashion house in Paris, a contract beneath which the artist was circumstantially drawn into collaboration with Rei Kawakubo’s “Comme De Garcons” design label, “Cindy Sherman” notably fell into acquaintance with “Vivienne Westwood” who was, through correspondence with the founder of the celebrated Punk band “The Sex Pistols”, “Malcom Mcclaren”, then involved in the management of the “Chelsea Boutique Sex Shop”, an interest that, in manufacturing prosthetic sex applications, was coincidentally observed to have been affiliated with the clothing industry.
Subsequently commissioned to work for “Vogue” magazine, an instance in which the artist was paradoxically hired to make glamour models look ugly in efforts to accentuate the finery of their garb, “Cindy Sherman” was, despite her concession to high fashion, noted to have preserved an affiliation with punk rock, both appearing in a video produced by the band “Babes In Toy Land” and creating a series of stills that, in focusing upon the physically grotesque aspects of traditional Victorian fairy tales, served to determine an increasingly radical realm of divergence from her earlier work.
Taking the interpretation of fairy tales to be a suitable vehicle for her art “Cindy Sherman” thenceforth proceeded, during the late 1980’s, to adapt a number of classical portraits into photographic form, a premium beneath which she successfully managed to modify her appearance to resemble a host of well known artistic standards including both “Jean Auguste Dominique Ingre’s” depiction of the French lace model “Madame Moitessier” and a selection of familiar images extracted from Pre Raphealite paintings.
Continuing through the exhibition hall after having viewed “Cindy Sherman’s” collection of classically inspired photographs, I entered into a convincing simulacrum of the artists’ New York studio, a display which, in being furnished with a selection of brightly colored bureaus brimming with paintbrushes, scissors and cosmetic appliances that had presumably been used to tailor the collage of magazine cuttings and prints which adorned the room’s walls, was notable for containing a battery of vertical drawers laden with the printed images of an almost limitless selection of prosthetic masks and wigs within it’s catalog.
Capturing the essence of the artist’s realm of inspiration, a sphere of interest that, in including the inventory of women’s magazines, films posters, advertisements and the many items of food packaging that circumstantially serve to distinguish the commercial decor of twenty first century life within it’s scheme, the profusion of objects which were observed to furnish “Cindy Sherman’s” studio presented some indication as to how her work gradually evolved to embrace both contemporary pop art and the mastery of disguise for which it has justifiably achieved renown.
Making brisk headway through to the exhibition’s next selection of displays, my attention was drawn to a series of images constituted from an assortment of prosthetic items which, in including a number of rubber breasts, masks. limbs and genitals within their catalog, had been arranged to resemble supine women suspended in states of comparative disarray.
Although visually disturbing inasmuch as that the figures depicted appeared to have suffered severe mutilation, a term beneath which, within reason, they succeeded in capturing the quality of unadulterated truth for which Punk iconography is renowned, “Cindy Sherman’s” sex pictures nonetheless managed to appreciate a sense of macabre misappropriation through which even relatively crude synthetic anatomies could, in paying homage to the human form, conceivably be considered art.
Doubling back on myself to review the next selection of displays, a series of items that in, including a number of photographs detailing the artist dressed as both a contingent of unemployed actors and a cohort of circus clowns within it’s scheme, was observed to coincide with her employment as a photographer for the “Balenciaga” fashion label, a term beneath which the cosmetic finish of haute-couture was, in a perverse sense, noted to have concealed it’s compliment of human frailty upon deficient terms to the effect of appearing contrivedly artificial, the mantle of frivolity beneath which “Cindy Sherman’s” art seemed to languish was imperceptibly perceived to diverge from the main stream, adopting a subtly sinister aspect through which it’s meaning could be interpreted in many different ways.
Choosing to extend the themes of falsehood and artifice within high society that had served to color her work for “Balenciaga”, “Cindy Sherman” thenceforth proceeded to create a collection of photographs devoted to the depiction of mature women who, in having assumed a veneer of respectability through a collective reliance upon cosmetic applications, were paradoxically made to appear hopelessly ostentatious, a premium beneath which the artist was, in 2010 nonetheless commissioned by the “Chanel” fashion house to produce a collection of photographs depicting women dressed in it’s garments set obscurely against the parched wilderness of arid desert environments.
Referring back to the aspirin fueled decadence of 1920’s women’s fashion for her next series of pictures, a collection of photographs which, in being christened “Flappers” through association with the big band swing music of the early twentieth century , witnessed the artist’s re-invention as a Pre-Hollywood glamour icon, a guise that, in successfully capturing the air of blithe insouciance which ostensibly served to define class distinction during the great depression, appeared mercifully detached from the notions of temperance and austerity that once stood in judgement over such things.
Concluding my visit with a series of photographs produced for the “Harper’s Bazaar” magazine in 2016, a selection of images which, in featuring the artist dressed in items of clothing manufactured respectively by the “Prada”, Gucci”, “Marc Jacobs” , “J.W. Anderson” and “Miu Miu” fashion labels, retained a markedly contemporary character, “Cindy Sherman” was again observed to re-invent herself as a street wise celebrity of the variety that may find occasion to patrol the cat walks of modern fashion shows, a term beneath which the themes of illusion and artifice covered in her earlier collections were effectively granted reign to accede yet greater distinction.
Running until the fifteenth of September 2019, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Cindy Sherman” exhibition, provides an intriguing insight into the range of photo shopping techniques that have, through coincidence with both advertising and cinematography, come to define the cultural apparel of the early twenty first century, and for those interested in both the science of pictoral modification and it’s ability to camouflage human identity comes highly recommended.
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