ARTIST CINDY SHERMAN MASTERS EMPATHY
Actress? Impersonator? Multiple Personality? Story-Teller? Cindy Sherman grew up in the 70’s and is one of my favorites from The Pictures Generation. She is an artist whose subject is herself portrayed as a variety of people from fairy tales, to clowns, to high society women, to historical figures, to feminine stereotypes, to men and more. While these images are photographs of herself, she is the photographer who takes them. She builds the characters through dress and becomes them in a single photograph. She takes thousands of photos before she finds the right one that says it all.
Empathy refers to the capacity of understanding, perceiving and/or feeling another from their frame of reference. Cindy Sherman isn’t living these characters she personifies in these portraits, but she is imagining a relationship of herself and them in what it must be like. This is an act of empathy that comes with story-telling. The viewer too empathizes with these characters. Is it like ‘dress up’ at home while alone with the TV? Yes and deeper. She gives these characters a chance in their ‘moment’ to live on, to be seen as human, to see ourselves in them and our differences from them. She has admitted to feeling compassion for these characters and when you see them here you begin to understand why. It is like watching a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.
Let’s step out of this universe for a sec…don’t humans try and try after endless defeat after defeat? Living is a constant heroic act, is it not?. How we carry our trials and tribulations comes through in the way we dress and prep ourselves for the next new day. The breasts drop, the face gets tucked and mulled by make-up, the hair gets bleached young and perfected according to cultural norms of ‘beauty’. We work hard on ourselves despite the enemy of time. Living a long life of careful grooming or a fast, robust and furious one is still a tremendous achievement.
Back to reality.
Her work is mostly untitled because she wants the viewer to create their own narratives of these individuals. This feels like a Baroque oil portrait of a woman distraught by something that has just happened. We don’t know what happened but we can invent a story from the exposed clues of her body, her beautiful lace on the shoulders, the secrecy of the closed off curtain, she is half naked, was she desired or not treated right?… She is broken, vulnerable and appears to not know what to do next. I feel sorry for her. As a feminist artist Sherman hits the nail on the head with this one. She probes tragic realities that some women face all the time.
Rock on, love it, this woman is powerful, she rules. I know those shorts, the hair, make-up, the tattoo, the nails and rings, the perked lips, the way she sits, right? I bet she doesn’t have much to call her own, but her pride is there, she knows how to survive.
Despite the criticism around her work as ‘mockery’ of typing people, to place herself as these subjects isn’t a form of mockery at all. It is as much about Cindy Sherman as those she portrays. She is a master of transformation, of sharing the world of people through trickery and artifice. The number of wigs, noses nails and eyes not to mention clothes and accessories stored in her studio is intriguing in itself. If you get a chance watch the video below and see more.
What makes her work profound for me is the fact that I feel I have seen or know these people somehow before, even though I obviously haven’t met them in real life. Do you? a little surreal, a deja vu perhaps… This makes sense to have seen these characters before because many of us grew up inundated with media and saw all walks of life through TV, film, the news… We travel and see this variety, we live in neighborhoods with other people who are different from and similar to us, we read about human cultures in books, we see them at the beach, strip bars, dance clubs, we walk our city streets and live next to the wild and crazy person up the road, or we know someone who knows someone who introduced us to someone who looks like this etc. It is easy to recognize ourselves but it is hard to empathize with those who are different from us. Our inner judge is a strong magistrate.
These characters are utterances of human culture regardless of era. They are iconic. We grow up with each other and ‘know’ people who could be close to a century older than us. For Cindy Sherman how the history of human life has been presented is of equal value to current mass-media representations of human culture, she researches her sources from everywhere.
Behind the furs, and silks isn’t a cool critic that manufactures identity, she sees and feels the human in everyone.
CINDY SHERMAN ON ART 21 roughly 25 mins
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