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Monday, May 28, 2012

Cindy Sherman at MOMA

I remember Cindy Sherman's work from the early 1980s, when I'd just moved to New York after graduating from Bennington and was trying to get some sort of a handle on what really, in retrospect, you couldn't get a handle on; or at least, I couldn't. There was simply too much going on. There seemed to be a new kind of art being invented every day, and the whole idea that there were clearly defined categories of activity which, entered into, clearly signalled that however one's intentions were to be read, they were to at least be read as those of an artist, seemed not only useless but probably risibly reactionary.

 In the context of all that ferment, and all the bombast that went with it, there was something about Cindy Sherman's photographs that appealed to me. In retrospect, I think at least one of the things I liked about her earlier work was its tentative feeling, its lightness of touch --there were no massive constructions, no space-gobbling installations, there was no pose of heroism or ironic exaggeration. Sure, there was appropriation --you can't hold that against someone --but there was a circumspection about it that made it possible to feel you were a part of whatever scene it was that Sherman was constructing. If her images were stills from films, they almost seemed films that Sherman had wandered into by accident; the look she had on her face was one of confused bewilderment; if her identity had been switched on her, she seemed still to remember who she'd been, or at least that before the camera started rolling she'd been someone else, and her discomfort at the novelty of the new self she was inhabiting seemed the viewer's as well. You and she were in, somehow, the same boat.

 It's difficult to imagine where to go from there. I suppose, essentially, there were two ways open to Sherman. She could have turned her eye outward, looked for the common experience of dislocation from oneself outside the artificial environments and pseudo-cinematic worlds she'd made; or, on the other hand, she could (much more perilously) have turned her eye inward, become even more hermetic, so that the distance between herself and the role she seemed to almost have been forced to inhabit disappeared.

 If the show up right now at MOMA is any indication, she's unfortunately gone the latter route. The diffident awkwardness of the work from the 80s, which created mindspace for the viewer, has become an opacity of surface and an overelaboration of decorative incident that, combined with the scale of the later work, are threateningly bombastic. The beauty of her earlier work was that although she took herself as a subject, the subject was always really someting else --her stills from films weren't one dimensional cine-fetishism so much as they were wonderfully meditated juxtapositions of the desire for a different identity with an anxiety over the assumption of a new one; they said: Be careful what you wish for. In the new work, there's luridly saturated color, a wild grand guignol vision of the disturbing senescences to which the body is susceptible, and a grim sense of mockery over the efforts we make to evade decay, but in some odd way it doesn't add up to anything.

 The most enormous works are a weird conflation of The Picture of Dorian Gray with the unreflective, bloated self-importance of Damien Hirst. I still don't think she's completely lost her sense of playfulness, and I think the lightness of touch is recoverable but an awful lot of the recent work is an illustration of the deadliness of satire without humor. In a strange sort of way, it reminds me of Anne Rice, who wrote one weirdly, leanly bleak, deeply angry, really wonderful book (The Interview with the Vampire) and who has since spent the rest of her career mistaking rhetoric for storytelling. Sherman's new work suffers from a claustrophobic obviousness; we already know the body rots, we know that let us paint an inch thick, to this pass we must come. It would be nice if Sherman broke a little through the marmoreal glaze of operatic sturm und drang that makes the new work so unapproachable, and showed us a little more of that wonderful ability to observe others through assuming their identity that makes the earlier work so successful. One used to feel the delightful inventiveness, in her work, of an actor who could conjur a world from a few sticks of furniture and an empty stage. One feels, now, the opressive overproduction of a Hollywood blockbuster that's all surface and no story.