Cindy Sherman is probably one of the best known and influential photographers of the current generation, and this large and expansive retrospective at the NPG is an opportunity to understand the full range of her work.
Sherman first emerged as a mature photographer in the late 1970s, and has continued to develop in influence and reputation ever since. The sheer scale of her ambition and output is all the more extraordinary when you realise that practically every photograph in the exhibition is of the same subject … herself. It might seem that she is truly the selfie-photographer for the current age, but actually it is not like that at all. Because although every image is of her, she is never the subject. Instead she takes enormous trouble with make-up, wigs, prosthetics and costume to become a whole cast of characters, each of which caricature and subvert the familiar.
The first compelling example of this subversion is when she recreates a set of fashion magazine covers, replacing the idealised female faces which they present with her own face, both replicating and then subverting the original. The purpose is obviously, and appropriately, to challenge us to look at the images again, to make us challenge the stereotypes they represent and, perhaps to gently mock the originals.
It is a trick she plays repeatedly throughout the exhibition, which fashion images, old master paintings, ‘society’ portraits and even pornography. In fact, the pornographic images are the only ones where she doesn’t herself appear, choosing instead to present mannequins and sex toys in a series of poses which challenge the repetitive, unsettling banality of pornography.
At their best the images simply bring you up short. At one level, the reaction might simply, can that really be her? Her ability to assume another character, both male and female, is simply extraordinary and leave you constantly wondering, what does Cindy Sherman actually look like? But more profoundly, her images very effectively subvert the images she is appropriating making you look at the whole genre afresh. The consistent theme of all the images is how women are presented in image-making, either as tools for the encouragement of consumption or as objectified images.
There is a room full of large images appropriated from society portraits designed to reinforce the presence and status of the subject. But Sherman’s take on these images replaces stature and confidence with pretension and vulnerability. The subject looks uncomfortable in forced surroundings, the signs of age and mortality are revealed in the face. These are people struggling for presence, not projecting it. The same trick is played even more savagely in a series of images based on old master paintings were the prosthetic breasts and mask of the subjects are left clearly visible to emphasise the artificiality of the reconstructed images, and by association the original images which inspired the series.
The images are technically excellent, highly accomplished and at their best very thought-provoking. But by the end of the exhibition there is a sense that we have the message, but is that it. Every image seems to deliver the same message, over and over again. And that leads to another concern. It is of course powerful and appropriate to subvert imagery on occasion, particularly to highlight the stereotyped and objectifying portrayal of women in both art history and current consumer and fashion advertising. But when you have finished subverting everything, what is left. Everything is brought to ruin and there is nothing to replace it. I’d love to see Sherman step up and present the reality she would like to see, rather than simply subvert that she perhaps doesn’t want to say. We need the positive as well as the negative.