Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures

Society Women of a Certain Age

By: - Dec 24, 2008

Sherman Sherman Sherman Sherman

Metro Pictures
519 West 24th Street
New York, New York 10011
212 206 7100
Exhibition closed December 23, 2008
Metro Pictures

          While there has been a consistent theme of using herself as a model, in a range of costumes, sets and themes, starting with the now iconic 69 photographs comprising the "Complete Untitled Film Stills" (1977-1980) it is always intriguing to encounter the latest variation in the work of Cindy Sherman (Born January 19, 1954, Glen Ridge, New Jersey).

            During a tour of the recent exhibition at Metro Pictures in Chelsea we encountered a series of life size color photographs of entitled women of a certain age. They exuded the aura of power and privilege. These are the society women that few of us encounter directly but are visible when attending benefits reported in the media.

           There is a certain look that Sherman has captured brilliantly. The magnificence is in the details of that certain, neatly tended, upswept coif; the high couture of dresses, jewelry, and accessories. Of course, given the current realities of the economy, more than ever that carefully crafted look is perhaps just an illusion. The partner who makes that lifestyle and pampered elegance possible has more than likely taken a terrible beating in the past year. In that context this is a particularly insightful and timely series. It may indeed capture the last whiff of the methane of an expiring Ancien Regime.

           Having imbibed the intoxicating vapors of the exhibition we set forth for some field research. By coincidence we attended two evenings at the Metropolitan Opera with  orchestra seats. This thrust us into the bosom of New York society so to speak, with the opportunity to rub shoulders and observe the mores of the upper crust during intermissions. We were ever vigilant to spot the "Cindy Shermans" in the audience. Now and then we were delighted to discover one in their natural habitat.

              For the most part, however, we were disappointed. There was only one spectacular couple but too obviously nouveau riche. She swept down the aisle to one of the first rows dressed like a Russian Princess draped in fur, some blonde dead critters, with a magnificent sable hat that recalled the Czars. When hat and coat were removed we noted hair neatly braided. She wore a strapless red evening gown. He wore a tuxedo, there were a few here and there, and a red bow tie, to match her outfit. They appeared to have planned carefully for their evening which clearly consumed most of her day. But for all the effort she hardly qualified as a "Cindy Sherman" as they were obviously trying too hard.

             For the true test of the social status of a couple always consider the male and how he is attired. Most of the men in our part of the theatre wore business suits. They looked as if they had come straight from the office, probably Wall Street. Their women looked sensible and elegant but hardly flamboyant. Near us were two matrons with legs as thin as match sticks, always a sign of breeding. No thick calves to betray generations of working the fields.

              When I shared some of these observations with an art critic friend from Saint Louis, and a true opera buff, he deplored this trend. Adding that you spot men in jeans and t shirts. We confirmed that by observing a man in what was obviously a designer Harley Davidson leather jacket with a boy toy dangling from his arm. Slumming at the Met, it seems, has certain panache for those who dare to be so gauche.

                Which brings me back to noting how absolutely brilliant Sherman is as an actress and social commentator. Starting from the first Film Stills she has excelled as a visual raconteur and narrator. Her images tell stories and the range of them over the years has been remarkable. There seems no end to her imagination and invention.

                 In this latest series the costumes, makeup, and settings were so elaborate that one just assumes a crew of assistants. But true to her process she continues to work alone in the studio posing before a blue screen. The backgrounds, in this series, evoking drawing rooms and libraries of mansions, are then attached digitally. Sherman remains in complete control of all aspects of making the work. One may just imagine all the time and effort involved in creating the appearance and nuances of her characters.

                   What I find particularly compelling about the current series is that the resultant women are entirely plausible. In prior work she has explored historic figures, fantasy, and the grotesque. Many of the images have been ghastly and horrific. She has spent a lot of her time and work exploring the dark side. But what was most engaging about this series is its reality and social commentary. One imagines that because of wealth and celebrity she has drawn from the opportunity to study these aristocratic women at close range.

                  This is all the more remarkable as, in person, Sherman is so average and non descript. I discovered this some years ago when I interviewed her for a cover story of Art New England. We spent an afternoon at Metro Pictures, then in Chelsea, talking about the work which was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a traveling exhibition. She was in the process of slowly removing herself from the work. One image involved a beach scene in which she appeared as a reflection in pair of sun glasses on the sand. Another image touched on bulimia and involved a puddle of vomit. I asked how she did that and was surprised to hear her relate that is was the content of a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. She also commented on her anonymity when riding the subways of New York.
                 Recently we encountered her with David Byrne during a visit to the ICA in Boston. They were gracious in allowing me to photograph them. I reminded her of that interview some years ago and was pleased when she appeared to remember. She looked different. How we have all changed. But she has allowed us to tag along through some 30 years of work in which she has been her own primary subject in many guises and personas. A part of that anonymity is that it has given her a canvas to paint as she sees fit. Sherman remains one of the truly outstanding performers and creators of her era. As an artist she has managed to age gracefully and taken us along for the ride. It's been a heck of an adventure.