Cindy Sherman: Decades of Disguise

Cindy Sherman has spent decades photographing the same subject: herself. Yet she’s always said her goal is to expose as little of herself as possible. Her work is self-portraiture, minus the self.

With the help of wigs and makeup, props and prosthetics, Sherman transforms herself into aging socialites, B-movie actresses and American schoolgirls. It’s these personas that her camera captures.

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Cindy Sherman has worked as her own model – as well makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist and lighting expert – for 35 years.

Untitled #92. 1981. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

Sherman’s character studies are currently on display at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The retrospective exhibition, curated by Eva Respini of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showcases more than 160 photographs, tracing Sherman’s career from the 1970s to the present.

The collection “is among the most important bodies of work made in the last century,” says Respini.

Sherman sees herself as a blank canvas, on which to explore issues of identity, accepted standards of beauty and the representation of women in society. The resulting work, says Respini, “is an encyclopedia of female stereotypes.”

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For a series informally known as “society portraits,” Sherman

embodies, as the Walker show describes them,

“women of a certain age from the upper echelons of society.”

Untitled #474. 2008. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

The exhibit, the first Cindy Sherman retrospective in 15 years, showcases the artist as biker chick, fashion victim, Renaissance milkmaid and demented circus clown. Also on display is the celebrated “Untitled Film Stills” series, which propelled Sherman’s career. Here the photographer casts herself as female film characters from the 1950s and 60s. The archetypes are so familiar you’d swear the shots are straight off a Hollywood sound stage. Yet none of the photos references a real film.

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Sherman became famous for her “Untitled Film Stills,” in which she

embraced the (overly) familiar female roles seen on the silver screen.

Untitled Film Still #6. 1977. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

The photographer refuses to title any of her work. The pictures are identified simply by their inventory numbers. It’s up to viewers to assign meaning to the images. Is that a woman about to poison her husband’s dinner or a single mother running late to her factory job? Washed-up actress or overly ambitious PTA president? Perhaps it’s all of the above.

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Cindy Sherman has been called “one of the most important and influential figures in contemporary art.” She’s also been described as “campy” and “egotistical.” Some say her work is mockery. Others say it exudes empathy.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The Cindy Sherman retrospective runs through February 17, 2013, at the Walker Art Center. Minneapolis is one of just four stops the travelling show is making in the United States.

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