Cindy Sherman: From dream girl to nightmare alley

Glen Helfand talks with photographer Cindy Sherman about her new movie, 'Office Killer,' and the 20-year retrospective of her work currently on exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art

Published December 8, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Cindy Sherman has the most recognizable face of any living American artist, if only because she uses it so relentlessly in her photographs. The retrospective of 20 years of her work that recently opened at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is filled with the artist's famous images of herself, costumed and posed to evoke a panoply of media-induced female stereotypes, from her career-launching Untitled Film Stills series of the late 1970s to her later impersonations of subjects of Old Master paintings, as well as numerous new -- and surprisingly large -- color prints of nightmarish arrangements of faux blood and dismembered plastic body parts. Since Sherman is also now making her directing debut with an endearingly goofy, if not completely successful, feature film gore fest called "Office Killer" (starring Carol Kane and Molly Ringwald), it seemed piquantly appropriate that the press preview for her retrospective be held on Halloween.

From the beginning, Sherman has explored the intimate connection between costume and identity, using wigs, makeup and an uncanny ability to inhabit a character. In her film stills, she quickly and seamlessly channeled the spirit of a young blond starlet playing a kitchen-bound housewife in a mythical Godard-like foreign flick or a fair-haired innocent staring wistfully out at an open highway, her suitcase at her feet. Sherman could just as easily become a martini-swilling moll on the lam at a beach hideaway -- and dozens of other mythic feminine images. As a member of a generation raised on broadcast media, Sherman, 43, seems to have instinctively tapped into and reflected the archetypal undertones of the TV and movie legends she consumed. As her artmaking continued, Sherman found herself digging deeper into the myths behind these single-frame "stories." Her intuition, it seems, led directly to the darker subjects of her extreme later works, disturbing visions that draw on our universal fear of nightmares and physical decay.

Instinct, Sherman has suggested, is her artistic MO, and it also serves as the best way to approach her work. There is something irresistible about her images, and their magnetism holds firm whether you analyze them or not. Her recent photographs combine elements from fairy tales and horror films, surrealist non sequiturs, cheesy fake butts and breasts, haute couture, gruesome but gleeful gore and an incredibly lush sense of color. And frightening as they may be, like passing a bloody five-car pileup on the freeway, it's hard not to look.

Although Sherman's well-known enough to have been mocked in the November issue of Vanity Fair with a cartoon parody called "Untitled TV Stills" (depicting cleaning housewives and Coneheads), her actual presence has always seemed elusive. She's given only a handful of interviews since her first exhibitions, so it came as no surprise that Sherman didn't attend the press event for her own show. She was actually across town, on the idyllic patio at the Chateau Marmont, consenting to speak with reporters about "Office Killer," which opens this month.

"I've done four interviews for the show already, and somehow I feel like I'm able to be fussier about granting interviews about my art than about the film," the soft-spoken artist said over coffee at a shaded garden table. "The film has to be more commercial and talking to press is part of that, so reluctantly ..."

Though the extensive exhibition includes images of Sherman as, among other things, a noirish femme fatale, a pig-snouted freak and a clown-faced lunatic, she's hardly frightening in person. Wearing a well-worn gray T-shirt, green pajamalike pants, Fila sandals and expensive, nerd-style glasses, she seems like a nice, nondescript neighbor -- friendly and retiring at the same time. She appeared proud of the retrospective, resigned about the film's bad buzz ("I'm just waiting for all the bad stuff to come," she sighs), but generally unaffected, almost as if she's surprised that anyone would want to discuss her art with her.

"I'm not really an eloquent person," Sherman admits. "I don't think artists should be the ones that have to explain their work. That's why there are critics and journalists. I figure, let the work speak for itself and let other people figure it out."

The strategy of not saying too much lends Sherman's art a mystery and an extended life span. All of her work, from the 8-by-10 series of Untitled Film Stills to her recent, imposingly large pictures of masks, is free of appellations. Though the artist may have her own personal titles for her pictures, she's well aware that wall labels would quickly siphon off their ambiguity.

This open-endedness in playing with fictional and media-generated archetypes has also provided loads of fodder for Sherman scholars, of which there are many. The selected bibliography in the retrospective's catalog, which clocks in at an impressive nine pages, proves the point. Amelia Jones' dense art-historical essay in the same volume begins by looking at Sherman's position as a cultural lightning rod: "Art historians and critics have claimed her as an artist/genius who excavates the human consciousness or as a producer of work exemplifying a postmodern culture of simulation, a feminist negotiation of the male gaze, or the condition of the abject in artistic practice."

Sherman doesn't seem to mind the attention, but she's hardly a theory-head -- and shyly admits that she's only halfway through reading Jones' essay. "When I'm making the work, I'm never thinking of any of the things people find in it," she says. "Sometimes I wonder if maybe it's all a lot of crap. Maybe the work doesn't mean anything. When they're writing about it, they're just finding whatever to attach their theories to. I just happen to illustrate some theories."

The most unexpected and illuminating elements in the catalog are the reproductions of pages from Sherman's artmaking notebooks, complete with scribbled memos to herself. "What could I possibly do when I want to stop using myself and don't want 'other people' in the photos?" she ponders in one of them. The answer is the powerful sex pictures that followed in 1992, perversely pornographic tableaux of anatomically-correct medical mannequins. "The difficulty," she writes on the next page, "is making poignant yet explicit imagery." Somehow she managed to do just that.

And just what does Sherman think is so alluring about the grisly Gothic overtones that now dominate her photographs? "This is my theory," she says tentatively, "it prepares you psychically for the potential for violence in your own life. Or your own death. I think it's also a way to be removed enough from it to even laugh at it. It just further prepares you for something that you don't look forward to having to experience."

By Glen Helfland

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