The Cindy Sherman Retrospective at the MoMA Makes me Jealous, Good-Jealous

In another life, Sherman would’ve made a great drag queen. She is comfortable becoming characters like wealthy society people or the poor heartbroken or clowns or Caravaggio’s Bacchus.

Mar 21, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I mainly like to listen to music I’m jealous of not having written myself. But what I’m really talking about is that I enjoy artwork I wish I would’ve made myself. All mediums. Art that makes me jealous -- good-jealous, not bad-jealous -- and inspires me to get off my ass and create my own work.

And that’s how I feel about Cindy Sherman, whose retrospective is on view at the MoMA in NYC through June 11.

Usually if I want to go see art, I try to go to galleries and smaller museums in order to avoid crowds -- the MoMA is a bit of a tourist attraction, you see -- but I braved it in order to check out the exhibit. Plus, the weather was magnificent, and I was with good company. So, this was a no-brainer.

The exhibit is on the sixth floor, so I couldn’t look down without my palms sweating really badly and my knees feeling like they’d give out. (I’m afraid of heights.) But that’s where it is.

And as soon as you get up there, you’re greeted by these huge portraits of her (the most recent pieces in the retrospective) that are on the walls to the entrance of the exhibit.

One of the pieces that immediately caught my eye was this one of Sherman wearing this weird female body suit that even has genitalia attached. She’s holding a sword, pointing it upward like an erection, and it’s hard not to think about sex and gender.

I was especially interested in seeing these extremely large pieces because of a recent interview I’d read with her, Sherman discussed how she’d seen retrospectives of male artists and how they tend to make these larger-than-life works that come across as pretentious and very male. Like one of those things dudes do where they have to prove how hot they are under the hood. (Yes, this happens in bars and in gyms and in the art world, too.)

So, it was nice to see her poke fun at the audacity some of her male counterparts can have.Then after that, you walk through the sliding glass doors of the exhibit and are overwhelmed by all the characters Sherman has taken on throughout her 30+ year career. See, this is the exact moment where I become jealous -- good-jealous -- of Sherman because every portrait is so spot-on. She’s able to channel all sorts of spirits.

In another life, Sherman would’ve made a great drag queen. She is comfortable becoming characters like wealthy society people or the poor heartbroken or clowns or Caravaggio’s Bacchus. Her most compelling pieces are those portraits showcasing the different portrayals/stereotypes of women commonly seen in film and media. But it is exciting to see her lose all self-consciousness and become anyone she feels like becoming, whether or not it makes her look ugly.

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The retrospective isn’t perfect. Sherman’s commercial work for high fashion brands like Balenciaga and Comme des Garcons isn’t really pointed out. (You have to have a knowing eye to recognize those.) Her twisted still life portraits from the 90s aren’t given much attention either. (Remember she did the cover art for Babes in Toyland’s album Fontanelle!) And the whole show felt a little small because the MoMA didn’t utilize the entire sixth floor for her, which they should have. But, really, those are my only complaints.

Of course, I wasn’t just fixated on what was lacking. I mean, when I’m in a room with a hundred other people, I have to pay attention to what they are doing or saying. What Would Cindy Do? You know?

Like in the section of the exhibit that had Sherman’s historical portraits, I saw a teenage couple having a tiff. A boy was holding his girlfriend’s hand, then all of a sudden she dropped it and stormed off into another wing, and he stormed off in the opposite direction.

I quickly walked over to my boyfriend and said, “Hey, look, those kids just got into an argument. I wish that was us right now.” I mean, what better place to get into a public argument than at the Cindy Sherman exhibit?

Unfortunately, that was the only argument I witnessed, which is okay because this retrospective takes you on a ride through all the facets of humanity -- as seen through one woman. It’s this type of mythology of the self, this channeling of different characters, which really interests me.

It's also in the work of artists like K8 Hardy, for example. Or Tracey Ullman, whose shows "Tracey Takes On" and "State of the Union" showcase her genius ability to become anyone she wants to become.

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Even I have a four or five-year-old ongoing art project called Self Portrait Thursday, where I take a photo of myself once a week to document the changes (physically and mentally) I’m slowly going through as I get older. I feel like there’s a new story and a new kind of self that’s trying to come through each week. It’s what keeps me going.

But enough about me. The nice thing about Sherman’s artwork is that you really don’t need an artist statement or any kind of accompanying paragraph on a museum wall to understand and appreciate the photography. Her self-portraits speak for themselves. They’re dark and beautiful and painful and funny. I really enjoy artwork like that.

I like to look at something and just like it without having to get too intellectual about it. And it’s not that I’m against being intellectual. It’s just that I really like art that is interesting to look at right off the bat. I want emotions first; the words can come later.