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ART : Tough Images to Face : Cindy Sherman takes her anger at censorship, rape and AIDS to the limits, creating X-rated photos that even she might shrink from

<i> Amei Wallach is chief art critic for New York Newsday. </i>

Behind the scrubbed face, the fine down-home features, behind the mild manner and the self-effacing laugh, Cindy Sherman is a moralist in the American Calvinist tradition--the tradition that once produced voter-registration drives and neighborly tuna surprise casseroles at sickbeds.

In the ‘80s, sometimes, the message got lost in the packaging, when Sherman was making a reputation with larger-than-life photographs of herself dressed up as waif, as sex-kitten, as any damaged female dreaming the destructive American dream. The work was so gorgeous, so entertaining, so smart about mass-media strategies that the unblinking feminist insight, the iron judgment, looked suspiciously hip on the deconstructed streets of SoHo.

Every time the press raved, though, or her prices rose, or yet another collector and museum got on the phone, Cindy Sherman would make an adjustment. Easy-on-the-eye shows were almost always followed by photographs in which a body would emerge from a sea of hypodermic needles and condoms, or a doll baby was discarded on the apocalyptic heap.

This time she’s gone extreme. Her new photographs, at the Linda Cathcart Gallery in Santa Monica through June 27, are disturbing X-rated photographs of mannequins in graphically sexual configurations.

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And listen to her now, as she talks about them, perched high on a stool at the kitchen counter of her TriBeCa loft, silk shirt some indefinite shade of blue, guileless wide-set eyes an improbable match:

“In a way, I thought that since less successful artists can’t depend on getting funded anymore to do their work if they have sexual themes in it, the more successful artists should be the ones to make the more difficult work, if they want to,” she is saying, with no pause this time to trail off into laughter and apology.

“Nobody can cut my funding--'Oh, you’ve been a naughty girl.’ The worst that would happen to me is that work might be censored, perhaps, out of shows. I guess what I’m saying is I can afford to make work that nobody will buy, or show--or like. And I guess that’s what I thought would be a good thing to do.”

But an astounding number of people do like her new grotesque, sexually explicit larger-than-life photographs. There weren’t a lot of reviews of her exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York last month--it’s something of a trick to print the words you need to write about close-ups of plastic parts and repulsive sex acts, after all. But the few were as awe-struck at Sherman’s continuing ability to stretch as they were appalled and enthralled by the images.

“Despite the fact that this work is awful to look at, it’s also compelling,” wrote Elizabeth Hess in the Village Voice.

And people have actually been buying up some of the most nauseating images--both at Metro Pictures and in the exhibition’s venue in Los Angeles.

“When I went to her studio to see these in progress, I felt the same way I always feel when I see Cindy’s new work--I always feel taken aback and surprised,” says Cathcart, who has known Sherman and her work for two decades.

“So then I spent a lot of time thinking about what the response would be and I thought they would be quite shocked and disturbed. But you know we really tend to underestimate people. For example, a tour bus of older people touring Santa Monica came in the day there was all the hoopla in the paper about Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle, and they just spontaneously began to talk about women and how women are perceived and how the government treats people. So exactly what she intends to have happen happens. It wasn’t about a six-foot penis or a four-foot vagina. It was how we can talk about these things. And that’s what all great art is about.”

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This is the second Sherman show that has made double debuts in California and New York. The first was the photographic take-offs on history paintings that put her reputation over the top the winter that ushered in the 1990s. Cindy as a Renaissance Madonna with fake grapefruit breasts. Cindy as a Caravaggio street tough. Cindy as French courtesan, with fake, bulging nose. The photographs were witty, lusciously posed, and wise about the overwrought authority of art history, the absurdity of woman’s place in it, and the ways in which images can be made to lie. The show was the kind of critically successful blockbuster sellout many a 38-year-old artist would mortgage her Armanis to get.

“I felt a little uncomfortable about how successful they were” is Sherman’s characteristic reaction, however. “It was really like the beginning of the end of the ‘80s when that show opened, so there was still a little bit of money left and almost all of them were sold almost at once. I thought people would think they were trite and that I was sort of selling out and that they looked very commercial and kind of cute. I guess that I was worried that’s what I was doing when I was doing it, because they came very easy to me. It just seemed I should be struggling more for the art.”

And so, naturally, she had to look for a harder way. She has, so to speak, stripped the velvet gowns, the disguising poses off her history portraits to expose spongy vaginas, absurdly fake penises, bizarre artificial groins, thighs, couplings and dismemberment.

“I just thought I don’t want to be perceived as a successful artist and just be happy to make lots of money,” she says. “It was also knowing that nobody’s buying art anymore so why not make something that nobody would buy anyways. I mean, I don’t know if I would want one of these in my house.”

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And she laughs that laugh that says: I’m an innocent, don’t expect too much of me. Her talk is spattered with “I mean,” “like,” “I don’t know,” with false starts and lame endings. Downtown acquaintances, critic Peter Schjeldahl once reported, refer to her as “the idiot savant.” Except, like her inspired dress-up, that’s finally also an act.

She may not be as articulate as many a lesser artist. But she’s altogether clear about what she’s up to. This is angry work: about “the censorship that’s going on right now with the NEA and artists in general and funding,” about Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court, about the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials, about AIDS.

“I’ve been married for 10 years,” says Sherman, whose husband is French video artist Michel Auder. “I haven’t experienced AIDS, and condoms, and (whether) you sleep with anyone anymore, or do you get tested after you’ve been dating. So I guess I was just sort of blown away by what people have to live with just to have a relationship and survive. Like, my husband’s daughter is 21 years old. I just can’t imagine being 21 and having to, like, you know--it’s such a different thing for me. I’m just an outside observer, initially shocked and relieved that, God, at least I’ve been with the same person for 10 years, but I’m, I don’t know--curious. . . .”

Sherman is giving us the real-life down-and-dirty answer to the soft-porn photographs and sculptures that Jeff Koons showed at SoHo’s Sonnabend Gallery last winter. People came from New Jersey, from Philadelphia, to gape and snicker at the close-up vision of Koons and his Italian porn-star wife, Ciccolina, doing it in a haze of colored gels, a bower of flowers.

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Even when Sherman, the actress, was posing for her own photographs, she would use something distracting--fake body parts, noses, eyebrows--to signal artificiality. It’s by accentuating the unreal that she gets to tell some kind of truth.

This time, she’s not even in the picture; she’s letting preposterously fake sex parts she ordered by catalogue from medical supply houses do it for her.

“These are molds that you practice putting catheters in,” she says. One of her photographs, for instance, of two groins--one male, one female--joined end to end at the waist “came in this suitcase,” she remembers. “Each had their own heavy-duty suitcase, and you open it up and there are all these practice catheters in there, and there’s just this spread-eagled woman and this man with the long hanging (penis). I guess what struck me about how weird they were is that the skin part of it in the legs and stomach looks like it must have been cast from older people, so it’s very realistic, and yet the vagina and the penis are sculpted from clay. I was just blown away and fascinated.”

But she fell as much for the humor of the situation as the horror. As nightmare as her unrelenting, unforgiving vision is, it’s also hilarious.

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The first work in this series she made was based on a mannequin officially called Patient Michael, which has interchangeable sex parts. She posed him/her on elbows and knees, and shot from the rear so that it looms large and elongated like Bauhaus sculpture.

“I was trying to make it a sad commentary on maybe child pornography,” Sherman says. “It looks like a little girl, like somebody told her to bend over and she did. I just wanted to make it show the fear and frustration and what you would imagine a little girl would feel like.”

Then she made a male version; gay pornography. A man with fake breasts, spread legs and an ax behind his head, is reclining, wearing a hangman’s mask.

“I think that one’s more humorous because it’s heavy castration anxiety,” says Sherman.

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There are also touching, funny, allegorical and awful close-ups of penises and vaginas, including a palpably fake, distinctively flaccid blowup of a penis.

“It just looks like some modernist painting it’s so close up,” says Sherman. “I wanted to blow it up so big that it would look almost abstract and also I think I was just commenting on the male presence in the art world. I was thinking of it hanging down, instead of the phallus that’s pointing toward the sky.”

We could always count on Sherman to startle, shock, and hold a mirror up to our private cravings and the public ways in which we permit them to be manipulated. But the new work goes for the groin. It’s got Surrealism’s obsession with the dark side of the unconscious.

Take, for instance, her lavishly composed shot of a wrinkled old woman’s mask topping a hollowed torso, attached to hips cut off at the thighs, leaking sausages from its groin, lying on a bed of wigs, like some Olympia from hell.

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Sherman sees this as a feminist image. “What really made it click for me was when I decided to put all the wigs on the floor around the figure to make it look like--well, initially I was thinking it was too bad I didn’t have some fake bearskin rugs that she would be laying on,” says Sherman. “And then I thought of the wigs. I thought, yeah, that’s interesting, it’s like the scalps of women that she’s sleeping on and she’s grinding out meat from her vagina.”

But even more, this particular photograph embodies deep, collective fears of old age, of decay, of becoming a monstrous still sexual thing, unable to perform, capable only of loss and hatred.

And it only works so well because it’s constructed of ill-assorted parts. There’s no way Sherman could dress up to this effect, even though she’s been dressing up, playacting, taking on the protective color of disguise since she was a teen-ager growing up in Twiggy culture in suburban Long Island.

It was at school at the State University of New York Buffalo, living with artist Robert Longo, that she learned to make art out of her odd habits. It was the apt expression for a society more comfortable with role-playing than self-knowledge.

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Now that she’s picked up the Surrealist spade to dig deeper, she’s not sure she ever wants to be in another one of her pictures again.

“In a way, I don’t feel it’s important anymore for me to do it and I’m tired of it,” she says. “And it just seems like I think by the time I finished the history portraits I just felt burned out from using myself. It just seemed like some weird form of entertainment, that people just expect me to dress up and be funny or ugly or scary. I don’t like people viewing the work and thinking it’s so personal about me. A lot of people are so curious to see what I really look like just because I’m in so much of my other work.”

And so what happens when the photographer arrives to take shots for this article? The first thing she wants to do is pose Sherman, sans makeup, in natural light, with or without her pet parrot.

The photographer says everybody wants to know what the real Cindy Sherman looks like.

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It’s going to be a while before Cindy Sherman’s public catches up.


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