Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Cindy Sherman at MoMA

Last weekend, my best friend and I went to New York City to go to see the current Cindy Sherman exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

I first learned who Cindy Sherman was in undergrad at Hollins University. I became an art history minor by accident (I realized my junior year that I had just taken enough of the right classes that I just needed one more to already have the minor completed). So, being a film and photography major with a minor in art history, it seems only natural that from the moment I first laid eyes on Untitled Film Still #21, I was completely and totally hooked.

Of course, I ended up doing a final project based on her work for my Modern Art class. It was a computer program/presentation where I took a selection of the Untitled Film Stills and the Centerfold series and broke them down into the archetypes they represented and compared them to specific films. It's probably the most elementary of ways you can look at Sherman's work, but I loved doing it and I'm still proud of it.

I missed out on seeing the entire Untitled Film Stills series when MoMA first exhibited it a few years ago, right after they acquired the complete set because I hadn't been exposed to Sherman's photography yet. I saw a few when I went on a trip to NYC in 2009, but I always regretted missing the entire thing. So when MoMA announced that they were doing an exhibit of Cindy Sherman's work that included the Film Stills and more pieces from her entire career, I really wanted to go. My best friend stepped up, and said we should go together and a plan was made.

The thing that I love most about Sherman's photography is that she plays with symbolism and archetypes so perfectly, and in a way that is mostly accessible to a large portion of the general public. This isn't like some artwork where you know it must mean something but you're completely lost as to what until you read a ten page artist's statement that explains what each individual piece represents to him. Sherman is using what we know, and she creates a commentary about it that is often equal parts celebration and critique.

The reason that the Film Stills series is so powerful is that we all know these pictures. We know these women, we know their histories and their stories. I would wager if you took one of them out into the streets of a city and asked people if they had seen the movie it was from, most would answer with "Yeah, I can't remember the title, but I've seen that one." Film is a visual medium, created using a short of shorthand language that we all know so that we understand things without being told. Tropes exist in film specifically so we don't have to spend a lot of time telling the audience things that we could convey with wardrobe choices, hairstyle, or even camera angle.

Sherman understands the vernacular and uses it to her advantage. There probably never has been as perfect a critique or exploration of women's film roles in that "Golden Age" of cinema. I've read entire books that were using pages upon pages of long winded sentences to try to explain what Sherman can say in a single image.

And the interesting thing is that those were some of her earliest works. She went on to examine many other types of popular culture and art, from Centerfolds to Renaissance painting to Hollywood Head Shots. And each time she's done it with the same skill and ability to speak the language of the art form and resonate with a wide audience.

If you're even remotely near NYC, you have to go check out the exhibit in the next few days while it's still up - through June 11th. MoMA is a fantastic museum anyway, and well worth a look when you're in town. But if nothing else, you should spend a few hours this week looking at the website for the exhibit or reading about Sherman, because she's an artist you really should know about.

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