Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

The huge Cindy Sherman retrospective at SFMOMA will be closing in a week, and I would be remiss if I did not write a few words about it. Her work, which is almost entirely composed of self portraits, is often described with terms like “masquerade,” “caricature,” “persona”, and her still images lend themselves to the idea of performance and play. I had the opportunity to see the exhibition a few times and found the her use of invented persona and performance inspiring as my own work in both music and visuals moves in that direction.

While much of the attention has focused on Sherman’s more over-the-top and exaggerated portraits, I found her early Untitled Film Stills to be among the most compelling. In these pieces, she successfully transforms herself into realistic roles and characters that one might see in films of the 1960s and 1970s.


[Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21. 1978; gelatin silver print; 7 1/2 x 9 1/2″ (19.1 x 24.1 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel; © 2012 Cindy Sherman  Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]

The transformation from her real appearance and character into these fictional roles through costuming, makeup and expression is already apparent, and one would not think they are all the same person if seen outside the context of the exhibition. It is the realism coupled with black-and-white that makes these portraits stand out from the rest of her body of work. There was also one particularly interesting series of images documenting the Sherman’s transformation from her everyday self into one of the characters.

One the other extreme are some of her more recent portraits, depicting female archetypes from contemporary society as well as a series devoted to aging “society women”. She uses the same elements of clothing, hair, make-up, setting and pose as in the earlier images, but here the effect is to make these everyday tools of beauty and personal identity into something strange. Some results of beautifully exaggerated, others veer towards the grotesque. But in all of these pieces there is a deliberate falseness to the facades and personae.


[Cindy Sherman, Untitled #463, 2007-08; chromogenic color print; 68 5/8 x 6″ (174.2 x 182.9 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.]

Once again, these images suggest performance, ranging from burlesque to reality television to more experimental performance art where the visitor is confronted with this exaggerated form of human appearances and has to figure out how to interact with her.

Another take on fictitious persona can be found in her history series from 1988-1990. Here, she uses the same elements to recreate scenes either directly referencing or suggesting historical works of Western painting. She transforms herself into the a variety of women as well as a few men that one might see in paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries.


[Cindy Sherman, Untitled #193, 1989; chromogenic color print; 48 7/8 x 41 15/16″ (124.1 x 106.5 cm); courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; © 2012 Cindy Sherman. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]

In some cases, they are quite convincing, while in others they are once again deliberately exaggerated through the addition of prothetic facial elements, lactating breasts, as so on. There was even one portrait that at least to me looked more like a Klingon from Star Trek than a European aristocrat.

Not everything in this exhibition was playful. A few of the characters were clearly meant to be battered or abused women. And entire room was devoted the period in the 1980s when she moved away from self portraits into more abstract pieces. This was the height of the AIDS epidemic and these images portraying dismembered bodies and rotting flesh were very difficult to look at.

Finally, in a nod to the focus on digital technology of San Francisco and SFMOMA, Sherman presented a wall-to-ceiling site-specific mural that used Photoshop rather than traditional techniques to alter her appearance. In the piece, we see her larger than life in a variety of characters, the most memorable had her in long hair and long flowing dress, more reserved than in her later photographic portraits. The use of Photoshop also is a reminder of how the ideas of invented personae is more accessible to more people than ever before.

As I said in opening, this exhibition was an inspiration as I move into more invented personae and theatrical performance in my own work, whether in music, video or photography. It is more of indirect influence through the mechanics and discipline of her production and the idea of the characters and transformation, rather than a desire to specifically emulate what she does. In that sense, the timing could not have been better.

Cindy Sherman will remain at SFMOMA in San Francisco through October 18. If you are in the Bay Area and have not yet seen it, I recommend doing so. The exhibition will next travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and then onto Dallas.

Todd Hido: Excerpts from Silver Meadows, Stephen Wirtz Gallery

One exhibition I have come back to a few times over the past month is Todd Hido’s solo photography show, Excerpts from Silver Meadows at Stephen Wirtz Gallery.


[Todd Hido, Untitled #10121-A,2011. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery]

The show features large images that were taken near Kent, Ohio, where Hido grew up. We see wintry scenes of modest houses and fields in a flat landscape with a few trees. The effects of snow, wind and the windshield of a car give the images a somewhat blurry quality. Interspersed among these pieces are a contrasting set of clear, high-contrast images featuring female models in vintage dress or poses. All the pieces bear very dry titles that are presumably based on serial numbers of some sort, a detail which I find interesting for what are emotionally strong images.


[Todd Hido, Untitled #10106,2011. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery]


[Todd Hido, Untitled #10473-B,2011. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery]

At first glance it may seem to like two shows mashed together into one, a stark wintry landscape in a small community, and stylized portraits of female subjects. The often blurry effects of weather and glass in the exterior images also contrast with the hyper-clarity of the indoor portraits. But taken together they do form a narrative whole that is very film-like. Indeed, I had the impression of stepping into a David Lynch film. The wintry exterior is a small town somewhere in the Midwest that seems perfectly normal. It’s a not a picture postcard of a the archetypical “small town” adorned with a layer of snow, but rather a place that is maybe a little more bleak, a little more tired, a little more isolated. But afterd entering a few of the snow covered houses, a more eerie and eccentric reality emerges within, populated with unnerving but seductive characters. The effect is accentuated by the fact that several of the portraits feature the same model in very different roles and appearances (something I would not have recognized if it were not pointed out to me), but by the dreamlike effect of the inclement weather and dark skies in the outdoor photographs.


[Todd Hido, Untitled #9221,2010. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery]

My impressions seem in line with Hido’s mission in this collection, “the artist’s metaphorical reckoning with his own past, while providing a majestic summation of the suburban childhood experience in general…homes built similarly to convey stability actually conceal lives seething with sexual and psychological instability.” I also like how he uses road trips as his part of his execution of this vision (indeed, the feeling of looking out a car window in stormy weather permeates much of Hido’s outdoor imagery). It suggests a dark corner of one of my “Fun with Highways” posts.


[Todd Hido, Untitled #1843,1996. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery]
[Todd Hido, Untitled #10502-42,2011. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery]

The cat portrait is a bit random, but it is quite humorous and does fit into the overall structure. I thought it worked especially well paired with the classic head portrait reminiscent of the late 1950s or early 1960s.

The show will continue at Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco through February 25.

Art notes: SFMOMA, Kentridge, Shettar, First Thursday

This was a rather art-intensive weekend, even by our recent standards at CatSynth., spanning Thursday through Sunday. This article will only touch on a few items.

At an unplanned visit to SFMOMA, I encountered for the first time work of William Kentridge. Kentridge is a South African artist working with stop-motion films, multimedia, dance and theatre. His work spans from whimsical to overtly political, often dealing with themes from both South Africa and the region. My initial impression of Kentridge’s work from the exhibition ads and the first passing glance at the gallery were mixed. The figures in his earlier animations, such as Soho and Felix are caricatures, with squat bodies and exaggerated features, are usually not that inviting to me. But one can quickly see the immense time and skill that went into these works, which are made from a sequence of charcoal drawings. And having seen the craft, I started to notice the art, and able to step away from the figures themselves to see the mixture of film, animation and music at a more abstract level. His later works, such as 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Journey to the Moon, and Day for Night, allow for a more abstract viewing, and also introduce his self portraits and self-deprecating sense of humor. Set on six screens, I moved between abstract animations of star and insect movements, and the artist spilling coffee onto his blank paper.

Probably the most interesting was his newest piece, I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008, loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose. There was of course a partly live-acted, partly animated nose as the “star”, but also other elements depicting the demise of the Russian avant-garde under Soviet rule, and elements mixing abstraction and Soviet-style realism, with muted color fields, geometry and text. There was also an interlude of South African choral music for good measure. I wish I had been in town for the performance and lecture last month.

The final works, based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, were the most elaborate, with video projects based on archival film, animations and stills projected into wooden stages with live mechanized shadow puppets. It was clear that the audience was transfixed in a way I usually don’t see for multimedia and video presentations in an art gallery.

This is probably worth going back to see in more detail. I simply did not have the time to stay and watch every video and animation.


Also at SFMOMA were some exhibitions I had seen but not written about previously, including the portrait photography exhibit Face of Our Time. I usually don’t go for straight-out portrait work, but these mostly large images worked in the context of the other exhibits at the museum.

I did take note of the abstract and whimsical sculpture of Ranjani Shettar. Her work combines modern technologies and traditional Indian craft techniques, but with none of the nostalgia or adherence to cultural stereotypes that often dominates Indian art, at least as it is presented in this country. Her sculptures do have a very naturalistic quality, reminiscent of much contemporary work in the western U.S.


Last Thursday was also the First Thursday open galleries in downtown San Francisco for April (this year is going by so fast, isn’t it?). I should first recognize Trevor Paglen, who was showing both at SFMOMA as a SECA Art Award recipient, and at the Altman Siegel Gallery. It is quite a coincidence to see the same artist at two venues in a single week.

Perhaps my favorite show was Ema H Sintamarian at the Jack Fischer Gallery. Her drawings/paintings consisted of surreal, curving architectural elements, with an almost cartoonish quality. Bright colors and shapes against a white background.

The show by South African artist Lyndi Sales was intricate and very meticulous, work digital cuttings of found and printed objects – it was also a poignant tribute to her father’s death in the Hederberg crash.

Portraits seem to sneak their way into many of my experiences this week, with Gao Yuan’s “12 Moons”, a series of photographs with a Chinese take on the “Madonna and Child” theme. She was featured at MOCA Shanghai last year in 2008 (MOCA was of course closed the main weekend I was there).

Susan Grossman presented chalk and pastel drawings of photographs, that quickly revealed themselves to be familiar scenes of San Francisco. The black-and-white coloring and soft edges also serve as a fitting close to an article that begin with the soft charcoal drawings of William Kentridge, even if the subject matter could not be more different.