This year has seen coast-to-coast "Cindymania" as as a traveling exhibition of one of the bluest of blue chip artists, Cindy Sherman, has turned this art world staple into a household name. Many are familiar with Sherman and her unstoppable career of shapeshifting into countless characters for staged photographic portraits, but folks on the art world outskirts are still in the honeymoon phase, including Ira Glass, who recently aired a story about meeting a Cindy Sherman imposter. A mention on This American Life increases awareness among white people, as do major museum retrospectives, and so Cindy Sherman is now as close to being a mainstream rock star as a contemporary artist can get; a status that is beyond well-deserved.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Fellows of Photography Fund; c. 2012 Cindy Sherman
Her retrospective at SFMOMA is a primer -- Cindy Sherman 101. The exhibit opens with her newest and largest figures. Nearly two-stories high, these awkward frumpsters greet their public, their baggy socks close to eye level. I loved Sherman's frank discussion about her super-sized work in a New York Times article where she talked about going big because male artists generally fill museum spaces with gigantic works: "I was thinking how pretentious that is. It made me realize not too many women artists think that way." Sherman is far from pretentious and always works alone. She is the sole actress, stylist, makeup artist, costumer, set designer, director, and photographer. She has been called a feminist artist but didn't set out with that intention. She was simply born with a predisposition for transforming herself.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #193, 1989; courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; c. 2012 Cindy Sherman
Your Cindy Sherman crash course continues with her early student works, her ultra-famous Untitled Film Stills series from the '70s, and her powerful collaborations with fashion designers where she was dressed in couture, but made up like a raunchy gargoyle. You will catch a glimpse of the years when she removed herself from her photographs and crept through dark, grotesque territory using mannequins, masks, and griminess as her subject. She returned as the model in her history series where she recreates old masters' paintings, playing up the falsities in her constructions with a snarky comic aesthetic. If you suffer from Coulrophobia, you'll want to skip the clown series, but the brave will revel in the luscious color and scary clown details. You will see Cindy as nearly every type of weird Western lady you can imagine in a series described as wannabe Hollywood starlet headshots. And finally, you will end up in a room saturated in teal and bejeweled with some of Sherman's most stunning and timely portraits to date -- a series of aging aristocrats, their make-up caky, their grandeur faded; a wanton sadness in their eyes.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #465, 2008; courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; c. 2012 Cindy Sherman
In this exhibition, you will be confronted with so many Cindies your head will spin, and yet none of them can fairly be called Cindy because none of her photographs are self portraits. She creates personas and says that if any of the characters appear too close to her own identity, she rejects them. She never titles her artwork, leaving the narratives up to her audience. You can Google Cindy Sherman and see images of her work for days, but nothing compares to the quality and scale of her arresting photographs seen up close. The retrospective is decidedly a greatest hits show, and I would've liked to see more of the B-Sides, but any opportunity to see the progression of Sherman's ultimate mastery of her craft is a class worth showing up for.
Cindy Sherman is on view through October 8, 2012 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For more information, visit sfmoma.org.