Cindy Sherman has had a profound effect on the artists of her generation. Her work can be described largely as repellent and yet it is alluring at the same time. There is also the added ingredient of humour instilled in the way she treats issues of femininity, the role of women in society, sexuality and the act of making photographs.
Her work which includes portrayals of B-grade ‘50s’ and ‘60s’ Hollywood heroines, fashion models and subjects from Old Masters paintings, all becoming the subject and object of her work. We also see works which include artificial body parts, decapitated dolls and grisly scenes of violence being catapulted to the fore.
Since Cindy Sherman began her career as an art-photographer she has seen the demand for her work grow with an international following. Indeed, she has experienced a giant surge forward from the 1980s. Her photograph of the Hitchhiker sold in 1979 for $50 then was resold at the Christies auction for $200,000. It became clear there had been a dramatic rise in her popularity and appreciation. This also helped to give more value back to the black-and-white photograph.
It is clear that Sherman is a talented artist who uses photography, she creates pictures that arouse and haunt in bizarre and sometimes graphically disturbing images. Despite this she is acknowledged as being of her generation’s most gifted and influential talents.
How did this happen?
The 1980s is described as being an exuberant time in New York as the art world exploded with a new generation of artists such as Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons to name but a few. Running alongside that there were the newly rich stock-broker whiz kids who would hotly bid against each other to acquire the hottest and hippest new investment portfolio which were the works of these young artists.
Then there was The Kitchen, an alternative space normally showcasing the work of performance artists, and said to be the cradle of the late 20th Century avant-garde. During this time The Kitchen hosted a photography exhibit, Untitled Film Still, by the little known Cindy Sherman. She gained a resoundingly positive response from her peers and her audience began to grow. The film stills raised lots of questions as people wondered if they were taken from real movies and if they were what could they be about? Who was the “actor” in them and where did this unknown artist come from with such a quirky oeuvre?
The film stills made up of a mix of provocative images were a reminder of films by directors John Ford, Roberto Rossellini and Roger Vadim. All of these featured women in roles that seemed vaguely familiar. From then on a star was born, and Cindy Sherman became one of the 20th Century’s 25 most influential artists (ARTnews, May 1999). Profound changes in the art world took place in the 15 years following that successful show at the Kitchen with many of the artists mentioned having either died or had ceased creating any works of interest to the art world. Artists such as Sherman received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and sell her Untitled Film Stills to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for more than $1 million, creating a new era in photography and the way in which it was viewed.
The quiet girl from the suburbs of Long Island rocked the world of popular culture like no other artist since Andy Warhol. She has appeared in rock lyrics and underwritten by Madonna. All this shook the art world. As she dressed up, played with dolls, assumed roles, she gave voice to creative issues of our time with graphic exploration. At the same time she provided a way through her art-photography for the viewer to enter into a good old-fashioned horror movie.
In her own words, “The only reason I don’t call myself a photographer is that I don’t think other people who consider themselves photographers would think I am one of them”.
Do we know who she is? Why are we so engaged, amused and horrified by her images? Are Sherman’s photographs Rorschachs’ for the end of the 20th Century.