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Art Review: Cindy Sherman’s Imitation of Life

 Jeff Regensburger Art Review: Cindy Sherman’s Imitation of LifeCindy Sherman's Untitled #405, 2000,chromogenic color print, 33 x 22 in.; Cindy Sherman's Untitled #468, 2008, chromogenic color print, 70 1/4 x 54 in.
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I wouldn’t know Cindy Sherman from Adam. Or Eve. Or any of the other hundreds of personages she’s adopted during the course of a career that’s spanned 40 years now. I realized this as I traversed the dizzying array of the artist’s photographs on view at the Wexner Center’s current exhibition, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life. This “hiding in plain sight” strategy that Sherman employs allows her to be both ubiquitous and unknown, to be present and somehow not.

To understand how this contradiction works, it helps to first understand how Cindy Sherman works; that is mostly alone, and serving the dual roles of model and photographer. She poses for her own photographs, often doing her own costuming and styling as well. She’s in front of the camera, and behind it. On the surface that’s a pretty straight forward proposition. Self-portraiture has a long history in art.

The confounding part is that the subject — the person we see in the work — isn’t really Cindy Sherman, so these aren’t exactly self-portraits. I mean it’s her, literally, but not really. Or it is her, but it’s not important that it’s her because she’s not really being Cindy Sherman. Instead, she’s serving as an archetype, or stand-in, for how we as a society are inclined to view and present women (like Cindy Sherman) when those portrayals are left to people who aren’t Cindy Sherman. So, it’s technically Cindy Sherman photographing Cindy Sherman, but it’s done in a manner that manages to obscure both the photographer and the model. It’s like a Mobius strip, but with large-scale photographs instead of Euclidean geometry. There’s only one side and one edge, but it looks like a lot more.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #86, 1981, chromogenic color print, 24 x 48 in.

The resulting works serve as an opulent snare of sorts, set to raise questions about the validity of the images we so often take for granted. Sherman’s pitch-perfect mimicry of film stills, publicity shots, fashion spreads and the like invite us into familiar visual territory. They bring us to a place that’s comfortable and known. They bring us to a place we understand. We slip into Cindy Sherman’s work like a warm bath, safe in the knowledge that the world (and women) look as they should.

It’s easy to walk through Imitation of Life and accept Sherman’s images at face value. They are, after all, beautiful. Rich, well-executed and expertly composed, Sherman’s work reveals, first and foremost, a world-class photographer. Beyond that, the familiarity of the styles draw viewers in with equal parts recognition and nostalgia . We recognize this. We know this.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #97, 1982, photograph C print on paper, 45.25 x 29.5 in.

But, then we remember these works aren’t exactly what they seem. We remember that they lack any and all of the context they imply. They’re staged. They’re fictions. There is no film. There’s no fashion spread, no aspiring actress, no centerfold. There’s no family fortune, no gated community, no second home in Boca Raton.

There is simply an artist using the tools of her trade to suggest those things and doing it with such precision that we accept the reality the artist implies. Sherman lays out a few clues and let’s our background and biases fill in the rest. Her knack for employing the formal elements of popular imagery is uncanny. It’s like watching great sleight of hand. Even when we know where the coin is, it still looks like magic.

And that’s Sherman’s magic. She shows us the secrets behind our image saturated world. In Sherman’s work we are reminded of just how easily the images we accept are constructed; how the right pose, the right light, the right pout or the right costume can simultaneously mirror and confirm all our preconceived notions.

Now more than ever, that’s a good reminder. Not just because it prompts us to reckon with our own implicit biases, but because it leads us to ask why the imagery Sherman references came to be so familiar and so dominant in the first place. That’s not a rhetorical question either. It’s a real question. How we answer it and what we do next matters. We need to get it right. The work of Cindy Sherman can help.

Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through December 31, 2017. For more information, visit wexarts.org/exhibitions.

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