Literature might be the wrong place to begin. Invoking words, when looking at pictures, is cheating. Yet Cindy Sherman's work has consistently sidestepped photography's silent modality and seduced viewers with murmured tales, or their trappings. First came the Hollywood B-movie stories. Later, stories from pornography and horror films. Always, characters pulled her mise-en-scene's strings--the fetishist, the pervert, the voyeur, the cineast, the necrophiliac, the mad scientist, and the department-store window dresser left alone at night with undead, plastic incubi.
The story I remembered on first seeing the new Sherman photos (exhibited at Gagosian in Beverly Hills this past spring, and to be shown at Metro Pictures in New York this fall), was Tennessee Williams's "The Night of the Iguana," which appeared in his 1948 collection, One Arm. I'm certain Andy Warhol read the book when it was first published, and that it meant almost as much to him as Truman Capote's short fiction did. The title story, "One Arm," about a mutilated male hustler, contains a drawing of an electric chair and includes the sentence "I guess I stopped caring about what happened to me"--one possible source of Warhol's notion that ceasing to care was the epochal moment in an artist's life. Sherman, from the evidence of her magnificently histrionic photos, long ago ceased to care. She needn't have read One Arm, inasmuch as Edith Jelkes, the heroine of "Iguana," haunts all neo-Gothic portraiture; any visual or verbal fable that exhibits a character's incomplete grasp of sexual poise necessarily returns to Edith Jelkes and her kind:
Miss Jelkes was a spinster of thirty with a wistful blond prettiness and a somewhat archaic quality of refinement. She belonged to an historical Southern family of great but now moribund vitality whose latter generations had tended to split into two antithetical types, one in which the libido was pathologically distended and another in which it would seem to be all but dried up....Edith Jelkes was not strictly one or the other of the two basic types, which made it all the more difficult for her to cultivate any interior poise. She had been lucky enough to channel her somewhat morbid energy into a gift for painting.
In Sherman's new pseudo portraits, as in the soul of Edith Jelkes, antipodes abide: shimmer, filth; wealth, decline; extravagance, desiccation; sexual success, sexual failure. Jelkes-like is the clatter of these overlapping codes, the noise of interior poise cultivated at impossible risk.
Perhaps I am making the mistake of caring too much about visual art's content. As Rosalind Krauss trenchantly observed in a 1993 essay: "[Sherman's doll photos] are a statement of what it means to refuse to an artist the work that he or she has done--which is always work on the signifier--and to rush headlong for the signified, the content, the constructed meaning, which one then proceeds to consume as myth." Yes, I am rushing headlong for the content. I can't help it. I'd rather behave, but against my better judgment I gobble the signified's fast food. (Paradoxically, it demands slow digestion.)
Beyond myth, I see in these new images--and not for the first time in Sherman's career--exhaustion's salutary presence. Cindy Sherman is the servant of Cindy Sherman, as Borges knew himself to be the drudge who wrote Borges's poems. Such servitude is psychically demanding; somewhere, eventually, the artist must express the toll and seek a tonic. In these comic pictures, I think, the cost's severity leaks out.
Noble rot rises to the surface in one of Sherman's new, untitled images (all works 2000): A woman, attempting a foxy look, must ignore her prominent and unfortunate teeth--as she has every right to do. Note her humiliated, energetic struggle against the dental burden; note the overbite's gusto, its refusal to back down or skip town. The eyes, too, are abject; they want to transcend the tropic mouth, after seasons of ridicule. I respond to the photo by flinching, but also by laughing--not at the woman, who doesn't exist, but with delight at Sherman's virtuoso effort to simulate an extreme of failed poise.
When I asked about the photo of the woman with the unfortunate teeth, Sherman described her as a "sexy earth mama" who'd been "hot in her younger days" and was "still hot in her mind." She described another character as a "retired realtor." I heartily agreed. I said many of these women were "very realtor." Sherman reiterated that she was not "making fun of these poor characters," as some critics had intimated, and she clarified that these images depict West Coast types, to be supplemented, possibly, by a future series of East Coast types.
Sherman's work tends to segregate beauty from disgust, but there have been pronounced exceptions, like the "fashion" photographs of 1983-84, which pitted gorgeous outfits against dermatological derangement. The new pictures go one step further, seamlessly integrating grotesquerie and glamour; they show that abjection doesn't belong solely to the disenfranchised. Filth is equally the property of the rich.
Exposing wealth's thickness and complacency, Sherman thrusts her provocative self-misrecognition--her retaliatory punctum--into a zone, and with an aggressiveness, that may discomfit. The new images do not make safe references to art, film, and fashion; they allude, dangerously, to local vanity. Specifically, they gloss the tradition of patron portraiture: Might we not mistake these women for collectors of Cindy Sherman photos? (I can only imagine the frisson at the Beverly Hills opening.) Indeed, an image of a would-be blond bombshell, whom Sherman described to Calvin Tomkins as an "ex-bit player," recalls Warhol's multiple portrait of one of his first important collectors, Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times, 1963.
Class, even in its upper-ish echelons, is visually incoherent. No map can account for every eccentricity of chemise, necklace, eyebrow, lip, and hair, and Sherman's photos playfully exploit this cacophony of signs. Cosmetic meltdown: Do we call these personae elite or underdog, carnival or hodgepodge? Sherman's characters can no longer say, I know who I am and what I desire and how to excite desire in others. As a consequence, we gleefully watch sexual poise's tectonic plates crack. And our glee comes mixed with gratitude to Sherman for generously pursuing what is often wrongly called "exhibitionism" but is surely better understood as cultural ecology--conscientiously recycling what T.S. Eliot called "the butt-ends of my days and ways." Some butt ends. Some days.
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM, writer, professor of English at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, and winner of the Whiting Writer's Award, is the author of numerous books of poetry and criticism, including The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (Poseidon Press, 1993), a National Book Critics Circle Award nominee, and Jackie Under My Skin: interpreting an Icon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995). Koestenbaum's most recent volume, Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics (Ballantine, 2000), includes several pieces that originally appeared in Artforum. He is currently working on a brief biography of Andy Warhol for the Penguin Lives series (edited by James Atlas). For this issue, Koestenbaum examines Cindy Sherman's new series of photographs.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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