Beginning in the late 1970s, Sherman explored the visual tropes used in the mass-representation of women through the act of assimilating stereotypes without a specific referent. Taking herself as the model and sole subject of each piece, the seminal Untitled Film Still series consisted of small black and white photographs that evoked b-movies and film noir scenes from the 1950s and 1960s. These early investigations into the depiction of femininity within the meta-narrative of modern visual culture gained further traction in her subsequent Centerfold and Fashion series. Welcoming a feminist reading, such series were overwhelmingly lauded as a work of counter-cultural genius. Whilst not seeking to undermine this radical discourse, by the early 1980s Sherman found herself pigeon-holed by the voracious market for her work. To challenge such preconceptions of her status as a female artist, she took a decided turn away from explicitly interrogating gender. Reveling in the dark and grotesque elements of legends and storytelling, Sherman expanded her commentary to the wider personality tropes and emotive characters that recur in popular culture and act as extreme comparative markers for shaping conceptions of identity, both lived and fictional.
As an iconic constituent of the 1985 Fairy Tales series, Untitled #150 epitomizes the macabre theatricality of this conceptual turn. Evoking the dark fantasy of the Brothers Grimm, Sherman transports us to a bizarre and indistinct fantasy world. Bathed in a sickly green light, a sweat drenched Sherman gazes with demonic cunning to the side of the frame. Brazenly dismissing the feminine tropes she previously took as subject, Sherman embraces not only a stark androgyny but a mythic compromise of her own humanity, adopting a beastly demeanor and emphasizing an obscene prosthetic tongue, wetted and glistening in the half-light. Inaugurating a crucial period in which Sherman begins to modify her appearance with plastic body parts, this peculiar appendage acts as a hinge for various potential narratives that mark the identity of our protagonist. Ravaged and thirsty, and blown to giant proportions in relation to the crowd of small figurines that navigate the backdrop, this mysterious figure claims no specific referent from folklore yet embodies an unsettling dichotomy of bloodthirsty monster and misguided child. “I wanted something visually offensive,” Sherman explained, “but seductive, beautiful and textural as well, to suck you up and then repulse you.” (the artist cited in Calvin Tomkins, “Her Secret Identities,” New Yorker, May 15, 2000, p. 81)
In Untitled #150 Sherman masterfully balances lighting and composition to create a shimmering tapestry of coarse contrasts. The glaring white snow of the kitsch landscape scene illuminates the background, pushing the figure uncomfortably forward into shadow and giving an unsettlingly claustrophobic feel to our encounter. The soft powder textures of the landscape chime discordantly with the highlights of the whetted tongue, Sherman’s dense perspiration and the lustful glare in her eyes. The resulting sense of unease, precarious calm and perhaps impending chaos, stand as markers of the artist's ability to masterfully craft a disembodied narrative within an image. Artfully she provides a sense of a specific literary precedent where there is none. As such, the work stands as a symbol of her metamorphic practice as well as her status as an artist irreverent and unimpeded by tradition or expectation, but elevated by her own manipulation of the clichés she simultaneously destabilizes.
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