“Some of her images have become just about as iconic as the Hollywood ones she once riffed on, forming a new view of femininity in a postmodern age.” —New York Times
(Image: Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58, 1980. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York)
September 16–December 31, 2017, the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University will present Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, closing out a calendar year in which every artist featured in the Wex galleries is a woman. An expansive survey of Sherman’s photographs, made over a career spanning four decades, the exhibition was organized by The Broad museum in Los Angeles and curated by independent curator Philipp Kaiser. The Broad houses the largest collection of Sherman’s photographs in the world, acquired since the early 1980s by Eli and Edythe Broad. The Wex is the only other venue for this landmark exhibition, which is comprised almost entirely of loans from the Broad collection.
Wex director Sherri Geldin notes, “From the moment Cindy Sherman emerged among that bold generation of so-called ‘Pictures’ artists, she has relentlessly probed the ever-complex and elusive idea of feminine identity through near-limitless exploration of disguise. Her stunning capacity to conjure individual personae through painstaking specificity of detail is matched by an equally uncanny ability to evoke the most generic, even clichéd, of female typologies. It’s sheer genius.”
Imitation of Life brings together over 100 works by Sherman, from her widely known Untitled Film Stills series through successive bodies of work that slyly play off entrenched notions of female identity, including an untitled series of works made just last year depicting invented (yet convincing) portraits of glamorous, aging former film stars. Sherman helped to craft the show’s title, which is a reference to director Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama dealing with highly emotional struggles of identity, as a reflection of the role of cinema in her image making.
“Imitation of Life emphasizes Cindy Sherman’s thorough relationship to movie culture,” explains Kaiser. “Her work has been deconstructing stereotypes established by Hollywood from the very beginning of her career by manipulating its language and using its rhetorics. Imitation is at the very core of her artistic practice.”
Sherman began to pose as her own model while in college, and she has continued to do so throughout her career. Using masterfully deployed cinematic techniques—lighting, makeup, costumes, set decoration—to disguise her actual identity, she has investigated the mysterious processes through which a person’s (usually a woman’s) visual identity is shaped and represented in popular culture.
Unfolding in a loosely chronological fashion, the exhibition begins with some of Sherman’s early photographs from 1976, including Murder Mystery works, and Untitled Film Stills, produced from 1977 to 1980. One of the most influential bodies of work of the 20th century, this career-defining series raises questions about the role of media in the construction of identity.
Further questions about self-definition and authenticity arise with works from the early 1980s, including a series of “centerfolds” commissioned but unpublished by the magazine Artforum. Her critique of feminine image formation would ultimately be embraced by the very media she challenged with a series of commissioned works satirizing idealizations of women for magazines such as Vogue Paris and Harper’s Bazaar, starting in 1983.
For the late-1980s series known as the history portraits, Sherman references the paintings of old masters, highlighting the artifice of “period” representation with cheap costumes and exaggerated prosthetics. Other works made around this time, including the fairy tale, Civil War, and sex pictures series, reflect the dark influence of the AIDS crisis and increasing censorship of the arts in the US on the artist.
With the series referred to as the Hollywood/Hamptons works, produced from 2000 to 2002, Sherman would conjure a fuller narrative for her imagined, yet reality-based, characters. In her clown series, created from 2003 to 2005, the artist adopts the forms of circus entertainers to reveal the elements of masquerade and performance inherent in the development of individual social identity, pushing exaggerated expressionism to its limits.
Newer works produced from 2010 to 2011 show Sherman using digital manipulation to create a disconnect between subject and setting. In the same gallery, a series of grand portraits from 2016, inspired by the silent film era, explore themes of class and aging.
The exhibition also features Sherman’s foray into feature filmmaking, Office Killer, which will play continuously in the galleries, and massive photomurals created specifically for Imitation of Life that reproduce the artist’s lesser-known, rear-screen projection series of the early 1980s.
An accompanying audio guide with commentary by artists and actors such as Miranda July, John Waters, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Molly Ringwald underscores the scope of her influence. Imitation of Life is also accompanied by a catalogue featuring an essay by curator Philipp Kaiser and a conversation between Sherman and filmmaker Sofia Coppola.