Art review: Cindy Sherman’s many faces

— Toward the end of the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a flat-screen monitor plays “Doll Clothes,” one of the artist’s earliest works. The two-minute, black-and-white stop-motion animation was made in 1975, when Sherman was an undergraduate at Buffalo State College. It features the artist, in undergarments, as a photographic paper doll who lifts herself out of an album pocket, leafs through pages of wardrobe options and picks out a dress. After putting it on, she begins to explore the more fully dimensional realm of objects atop a dresser until an anonymous hand reaching in from off-screen plucks her out of her newfound reverie and puts her back in her appointed slot — captive, dependent and inert once again.

The video makes a fine coda to the show’s 170 photographs, nearly all of them portraits of the artist in fictive roles defined by costume, makeup, pose, setting and sometimes the use of prostheses. “Doll Clothes” reasserts the themes that interested Sherman early on and continue to drive her work: transformation; the fluidity and multiplicity of identity; self-determination versus the external “hand” of social forces.

As Sherman’s work itself transformed over the decades, it has become something of a self-perpetuating spectacle, growing more and more impressive (the scale! the vivid color! the inexhaustible variety of disguises!) but less relevant, less resonant on a personal level. Her photographs are never less than entertaining, but neither are they consistently more than that. Placed near the end of the show’s slightly jumbled chronology, “Doll Clothes” comes as a welcome respite, a return to more intimate insights.

When Sherman started making art in the mid-'70s, she entered a coursing, terrain-altering river midstream. Numerous artists were scrutinizing the variable distances between real woman and feminine ideal, chiefly through masquerade and performance for the camera.

Eleanor Antin had charted her weight loss in a photogrid and began to assume alternate identities on both ends of the gender spectrum — king and ballerina. Suzy Lake photographed herself applying masks of makeup to impersonate her friends. Lynn Hershman adopted an alter ego, Roberta Breitmore, who carried on an alternate life in the real world. Martha Wilson made videos transforming her face into what she said represented her best hopes and her worst fears and also created a composite character together with Jacki Apple. Others, Lynda Benglis and Hannah Wilke among them, played with shape-shifting, negotiating the dynamics of women’s liberation from traditional roles, reckoning with both the freedoms and vulnerabilities resulting from such change.

Sherman certainly learned from those who preceded her and was deeply influenced by them but also built upon the foundation that they established. With the strength and success of her early work, she forged a bridge between ‘70s-era low-tech introspection and the glossier bombastics of art of the succeeding decades.

While in college, Sherman would sometimes dress as different characters for parties and art openings. She made a terrific series of photographic head shots (included in the show, curated by MoMA’s Eva Respini) documenting her progression from masculine-looking to a stylized version of ultra-femininity. In 1977, she moved to New York and spent the next few years creating her most compelling body of work, 70 modest black-and-white pictures she called “Untitled Film Stills.”

Contrived candids, the pictures draw upon character types from films of the ‘50s and ‘60s — career girl, wholesome youth, boozy vamp, jilted lover, bohemian, housewife (both sexy and stressed). Sherman oscillates from prim to sultry, cute to crazed. Here she leans confidently against the brick wall of the Flagstaff train depot, there she cries before an empty martini glass. In one photograph she stands expectantly by the side of a road, full of promise, and in another, she self-destructs in a housecoat on basement stairs. The images exert the emotional tug of the familiar and vaguely nostalgic. They feel coy and clever but also appealingly earnest in a way never revisited in Sherman’s later work, which grows increasingly confrontational.

In the film stills, Sherman smartly fused a searching, feminist sensibility with the consciousness of a heavy consumer of media culture. From here on, Sherman created her work in-studio (working alone, sans assistants), borrowing liberally (like her peers within the so-called Pictures generation) from given idioms of film, television and magazines to further probe the notion of the protean, socially constructed self.

For her 1981 series referred to as “Centerfolds,” she adopted saturated color and a more assertive format, a 2-by-4-foot cinematic horizontal. Several of the young female characters appear crouched or splayed on the floor, distressed, lost in thought, watchful, even traumatized. Most are uncomfortably compressed by the frame’s edges. Emotionally dark tone poems, each is richly keyed to a different color: coral, olive, orange.

Sherman’s work gets progressively tougher as it loosens its links to common female types and dialogues more with extremes of appearance and behavior. Subtleties of mood and expression give way to exaggeration and caricature, as Sherman subverts one familiar genre after another. Fashion pictures, fairy tales and portraits from the annals of art history all get Shermanized into bold, grotesque parodies. Models look tense, macabre. Aristocrats derived from Old Master paintings sport bulbous noses and shell-like prosthetic breasts.

In the “Disaster” series, Sherman largely removed herself from the frame, filling it instead with glossy viscera and spewed vomit. “Untitled #175" (1987) suggests a bulimic binge, desperate and disgusting. Broken chocolates and crushed pastries scatter across a pale blue carpet, cream fillings oozing into the crusty fibers. Sunglasses resting on a vomit-soaked towel reflect the face of a woman in pained despair.

The aggressiveness of these pictures (another one thrusts prosthetic butt cheeks erupting with pimples in the viewer’s face) reflects Sherman’s self-professed attempt to be less likable, less collectible. The gambit didn’t seem to make a dent in her popularity, nor did a later set of images of creepy, threatening clowns or perversely reconfigured body parts from medical supply shops that make Hans Bellmer’s erotic doll photographs look quaint in comparison.

As hard as it is to love, such work has its fascinations, and however much it seems to deviate from Sherman’s foundational concerns with identity, it does still touch, like pressure on raw nerves, on issues of societal norms and idealized beauty. Those subjects come back to the fore in Sherman’s work from the past decade — head shots of female types from East and West coasts and fairly severe society portraits, pictures of women marked by robust financial health and grudging physical decline. Every one of these images reads as a declaration of presence but equally as a portrait of aspiration, face paint and costume exposing the desire to be more (tanned, thin, glamorous) or less (old, wrinkled) than each woman happens to be.

Since the late ‘80s, Sherman has left visible the gaps between person and persona. She lays bare the artifice inherent in her project and twins it with the inevitable inauthenticity characterizing her subjects. She exploits photography’s sly nature as finger-crossed truth teller, its ability to support any and all propositions. If her work no longer has the bite it once did, consider how much less it has to push against and to prove than when she started out.

Women occupy a wider range of real roles than was imaginable in the ‘70s. In terms of visual identity, at least, Photoshop expands the palette of possibilities endlessly and with ease. The notions of the socially constructed self, and postmodernism’s “vertigo of unlimited multiplicity” (in the words of psychologist Kenneth Gergen), are no longer as fresh or startling as they once were. Neither are Sherman’s later pictures, but that early work charms and provokes as ever.