Untitled #153 is quite simply among the most important foundational works of Cindy Sherman’s career. Included in most of the artist’s pivotal exhibitions, it is one of Sherman’s most acclaimed and critically analyzed photographs. Five examples from the edition are held in esteemed institutional collections around the world as representing a major contribution to the history of Contemporary photography: the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montreal; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; and The Tamayo Museum, Mexico City.
Examining the mythological subterranean strata of the human condition, Cindy Sherman’s monumental Untitled #153 from 1985 broadcasts a haunting vision of this ceaselessly inventive and conceptually compelling artist on the scale of a movie screen. In 1985, Cindy Sherman was invited by the magazine Vanity Fair to create a series of photographs based on children’s fairy tales. Her theatrically grotesque responses imploded sentimental expectations and aligned more closely with the dark fantasies of eighteenth and nineteenth century fables by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen than classic bedtime stories. With this series, Sherman shocked her audience by replacing the saccharine with the disquieting. Never published by the magazine—akin to Sherman’s Artforum-commissioned Centerfolds—the Fairy Tales did not correspond to specific stories, but rather, their theatrical mise-en-scènes evoked an unspecified amalgamation of folk legends, myths, and fables. Not only was the Fairy Tales series the first instance in which she used prostheses, but they were also the first photographs that moved beyond delving into contemporary female stereotypes and began to explore the realm of the make-believe, using the photographic medium to dramatically surpass the binary boundaries that plague reality. Sherman’s Fairy Tales invite the projection of our own memories, fantasies, and nightmares, opening the concealed subconscious darkness that lurks behind the idealized images that pervade our daily lives. Suspenseful, sinister, and unnerving, yet exceptionally elegant, the ambiguity of Untitled #153 allows for an elasticity of interpretation that lends it a sensationally enigmatic resonance.
Untitled #153 revels in its own fantastical artificiality. The edges of Sherman’s synthetic costume wig are made clear, as if just slightly off-balance; bathed in electrifying light, the intoxicating hues of the lush, garish green moss and brilliant ice-blue eyes accentuate the image’s surreal, nightmarish quality. The Museum of Modern Art curator Eva Respini singled out the present work as the apotheosis of Sherman’s output, describing its exhilarating over-the-top phantasmagoria: “Even when Sherman is in the photographs, she appears doll-like and artificial, as in Untitled #153. Reminiscent of a crime scene photo, the picture shows a dead woman lying on the ground and covered in dirt, her glassy eyes opened wide, as if shocked by her own violent demise. Unlike a police photograph, however, this larger-than-life glossy picture is full of seductive detail, with rich descriptions of the colors and textures of the gravel background, the woman’s mussed hair, and her waxy face. With this picture, the suspense and suggestion of violence lurking in the Untitled Film Stills and Centerfolds is amplified and articulated.” (Eva Respini, "Will the Real Cindy Sherman Please Stand Up?" in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Cindy Sherman, 2012, p. 35) The closely cropped perspective of Sherman’s image evokes the claustrophobic confinement of the women in her Centerfolds, while the cinematic drama of the frozen image recalls her Untitled Film Stills, conjuring an engaging mystery as to the broader narrative from which this portentous moment is displaced.
Corrupting her own guise beyond recognition, Sherman here enacted the lurid imagery of low-budget horror films—simultaneously beguiling and jarring, Untitled #153 exists in a David Lynch-like sphere of the paranormal, heightening a duplicity and horror that simmers with psychological unease. As Lisa Phillips wrote in the exhibition catalogue for Sherman’s career-shaping 1987 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (for which Untitled #153 graced the cover), “Artifice and emotional intensity reach a fever pitch in Sherman’s highly theatrical mythological series [Fairy Tales]… Sherman ventures into exotic, subterranean territory far beyond the realm of convention and received ideas. The daydreams of the early black and white ‘film stills’ have turned into hallucinatory visions of nightmarish proportions. It is a gothic fairy-tale world gone sour—corrupted, decaying, mutilated.” (Lisa Phillips, "Cindy Sherman’s Cindy Shermans" in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Ibid., 1987, p. 15) Sherman’s character lies paralyzed like a corpse, gazing glassy-eyed into the distance. With clothes that are damp and muddied and beads of water that dot her flesh, it is as if her body has just been washed up on shore from the watery depths. Amplifying the complex Hitchcockian malaise of her earlier works, Untitled #153 enters riveting new territory with a spellbinding image that concurrently thrills, terrifies, provokes, and unsettles.
In the wake of her groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills and Centerfolds series of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sherman’s photographs were read primarily through the lens of a feminist discourse surrounding the camera’s encoded representation of women and its capacity for the semiotic construction and mediation of stereotypes. While plainly fictive, Sherman’s cinematic tableaux before 1985 were rooted in the framework of the real world; her Fairy Tales reached entirely new heights in the scope of her imagination. As is exemplary of Sherman’s oeuvre, she exposes the camera’s ability to manipulate images, and unravels the viewer’s passive acceptance of these constructions as truth. In Untitled #153, we are irresistibly lured into a compelling drama and seduced into providing our own reading of the scene, yet by its very nature we concomitantly understand the inherent fiction of this compelling spectacle.
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