Cindy Sherman as Iconic Revolutionary

October 28, 2012 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Painter Thony Aiuppy explores famed photographer Cindy Sherman's impact on art and on the feminist movement.

Untitled (1980),Currently on display at ReFocus:The 80s

Cindy Sherman is a contemporary artist who has held much weight not only in the art world, but also in regards to feminism. While she says that she does not create feminist art, threads of feminist thought weave through her many photographs. In her Untitled Film Stills series, which started back in 1977, Sherman poses herself in stereotyped feminine situations. These works would be a staple for the artist over the next several decades and fertile ground for feminist artists and critics to mine through. To better understand the scope in which Sherman’s influence reaches, Eleanor Heartney says, “Sherman has been the indispensable reference for studies of the decentered self, the mass media’s reconstruction of reality, the inescapability of the male gaze, the seduction of abjection, and any number of related philosophical issues.” (Heartney, p. 168)

When a viewer looks at one of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, several conventional prescriptions should be mentioned.
First, the protagonist in almost every image is the artist. Second, the artist is in control of the entirety of the process: she plays photographer, actor, stylist, costumer, prop and/or stage production. Sherman does it all. Third, especially with the early Film Stills, the artist shoots the images in black and white. Fourth, within this series, the protagonist is always alone, but the image shot suggests the scene is seen through an onlookers eyes. The moods evoked in such photographs include disgust, empathy, and fear among others. Costumes that the artist dons at any given time include librarian, housewife, B movie star, femme fatale, pinup girl, and the list runs on. Many of the scenarios that can be seen in Sherman’s photos tend to have a vintage tinge to them; they can be as unsettling as a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

These women that Cindy Sherman portrays, again, are alone, and wear faces devoid of expression.  At times, anxiety feels as if it’s about to set in; something to do with the fact that these subjects are solitary in their environment. Sherman has stated in the past that she chose women who, “don’t follow the accepted order of marriage and family, who are strong, rebellious characters (and) are either killed off in the script or see the light and become tamed, joining a nunnery or something.” (Heartney, p. 171)

Cindy Sherman is influential in the context of a predominately male world because her work points to the voyeuristic male gaze that so permeates our media saturated culture. This concept ties back into the issues of simulacra. In Sherman’s Film Stills series, the women portrayed can be referenced in many a media situation: horror film, advertisement, film noir, fashion shot, you name it. While there is a wide variety of women portrayed in the artist’s photographs, the viewer is never given any substantial information as to who this woman is. The female form, then, is reduced to a symbol (or sign).

The critic Craig Owens has suggested that Cindy Sherman presents the audience with the notion of feminine as masquerade. In his “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmdernism,” Owens asks “when Cindy Sherman, in her untitled black and-white studies for film stills (made in the late '70s and early '80s), first costumed herself to resemble heroines of grade-B Hollywood films of the late '50s and early `60s and then photographed herself in situations suggesting some immanent danger lurking just beyond the frame, was she simply attacking the rhetoric of ‘auteurism by equating the known artifice of the actress in front of the camera with the supposed authenticity of the director behind it?’ Or was her play-acting not also an acting out of the psychoanalytic notion of femininity as masquerade, that is, as a representation of male desire?” He then goes on to say that, “Sherman's photographs themselves function as mirror- masks that reflect back at the viewer his own desire (and the spectator posited by this work is invariably male) specifically, the masculine desire to fix the woman in a stable and stabilizing identity.” (Owens, p. 12)

Sherman’s early works are  certainly something to be dealt with by the art world at large. Several contemporary female artists tout her achievements and and use her influence as fuel to keep the torch burning for the next generation of burgeoning young radicals. Lisa Yuskavage and Jenny Saville come to mind. It is only fitting that Sherman’s photograph would be present in the oeuvre of art movements dealt with in MOCA Jacksonville’s exhibit ReFocus: Art of the 1980s.  

Works Cited:
Heartney, Eleanor. “Cindy Sherman: The Polemics of Play.” After the Revolution: Women who Transformed Contemporary Art. Munich: Prestel, 2007. Print.

Klinger, Linda S. “Where’s the Artist” Feminist Practice and Poststructural Theories of Authorship.” Art Journal 50.2 (Summer, 1991): 39-47. Web.

Owens, Craig. “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” The  
Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. New York: New Press, 2002. Print.

Thony Aiuppy (b. 1980) received a BFA in Painting/Drawing at the University of North Florida in 2010 and is an MFA Painting Candidate at Savannah College of Art and Design. This current selection of work focuses on singular figures that provoke the human concepts of identity through such conventions as ambiguous surroundings, cropped compositions, and thick brushwork. Through the creation of these small-scale oil paintings, Aiuppy merges socio-economic and -political themes with personal experiences of living with the residue of a racially divided American South to offer a new perspective on the pressing issues that face his contemporary landscape. Aiuppy is a contributing writer for the blog and has a painting studio at CoRK Arts District. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida.