I was first introduced to Cindy Sherman’s work in my undergraduate Introduction to Film Photography course, and I’ve been intrigued by her work ever since. My graduate research focused heavily on notions of gender, and I continuously find myself searching for clues that artists are grappling with such social constructs in their bodies of work. I regard Sherman’s self-portraits as incredibly vulnerable and therefore brave. Let’s be honest—most of us aren’t filled with the most comfortable feeling when we examine ourselves closely in a self-portrait (or more commonly these days, a selfie). Most individuals would never arrive at Sherman’s larger concepts, instead fretting over their every perceived flaw—a crinkled smile line, a dark spot or a blemish, or even a little dark hair that was missed by the tweezers. Nevertheless, Sherman was quite prolific with her self-portraits, and impressively transforms herself into an entirely new character in each photograph. If you aren’t familiar with Sherman’s work, I encourage you to explore her other self-portraits for comparison, beginning with her Untitled Film Still series, which captures enigmatic supposed scenes of archetypical female characters from movies that don’t actually exist.
This photograph caught my attention from across the gallery, and I remember my first remarks to one of the curators about the work: “I can smell her from here.” I viscerally imagine this woman to be drenched in a musky floral perfume. Sherman’s guise has major late 80s, perhaps early 90s vibes, complete with a side bow sleeve and the dramatic rouching of her dress. Her earrings are big, heavy—the kind that leaves your ear lobes sore at the end of the night. Her hair? Even bigger. Perhaps one entire bottle of hair spray was used in the making of this photo. Glitter is everywhere starting below her chin, and it certainly must’ve taken forever to scrub off. Her undereye concealer is a touch too light for her skin tone or hints at the tan line one receives around the eyes with those tiny tanning goggles, since this character is very tan. Her lips are overlined with a crimson red pout. Her gaze with her head titled backward says, “what are you looking at” in a provocatively confrontational manner. She looks like she might’ve owned a cigarette holder in her day. I must admit that I am confused that her fingernails lack polish because I believe a character like this would have her nails painted. I wonder what Sherman intended to imply when it came to this detail.
My favorite part of her appearance is that it leads to so many questions, and you find yourself making assumptions about this woman and building a narrative. Who is she, and why is she dressed like this? What or who is this photoshoot for? Was she going somewhere, or was she simply playing dress-up? Is she a washed-up debutante or pageant queen? Is she the eccentric wife of an elderly billionaire? Would she hang this portrait in her Beverly Hills mansion? Is she happy?
Vantage Points: Contemporary Photography from the Whitney Museum of American Art is on view now at the Asheville Art Museum through March 15, 2021.
—Devon Fero, communications & external affairs assistant