Depicting a young and alert career girl – perhaps on her first day in the big city – Untitled Film Still #21 utterly epitomises Sherman’s iconic portfolio of black and white images. Building on stereotypical modes of femininity – roles that became cemented in the collective consciousness of the post-war generation in America through Hollywood films and consumer culture – Sherman cast herself in the role of protagonist for a litany of fictional fantasies: pseudo promotional stills for non-existent film productions. In doing this, Sherman importantly exposed ingrained gendered stereotypes and the culturally accepted subjugatory role of women. In each photograph Sherman appears in a different guise, ranging from the ingénue, the sex kitten, the hardened film-noir heroine to the sophisticate, the lonely housewife, or, as in the present work, the city girl. With a full suite of Untitled Film Stills housed in The Museum of Modern Art and having been fully canonised by a slew of art historians since their conception, this groundbreaking series is one of the most important and consequential bodies of work of the late Twentieth Century. Attesting to the artist’s momentous significance upon the course of contemporary art history, a major retrospective of Sherman’s work will go on display in June this year at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Conceived over a period of three years, this encyclopaedic series would come to define Sherman’s idiosyncratic artistic vocabulary and catalyse her career as one of the leading artists of the influential Pictures Generation. Similar to fellow Pictures artists Richard Prince (who was her boyfriend around that time) and Robert Longo (whom she met at college), Sherman was deeply influenced by commercial image culture and the diffusion of stereotypes via popular imagery. While Prince focused on re-photographing iconic images taken from the advertising world and Longo aimed to recreate a particular sense of motion and energy in his drawings, Sherman cast herself as the star in her own cinematic mise-en-scène.
Created in the classic format, scale, and quality that would mimic the often staged ‘stills’ used to promote films, Sherman conceived the first six pictures as a group in which she impersonated a single actress in various roles. This experiment soon expanded into a detailed survey of various different characters and scenes, all loosely inspired by film imagery. Rather than assuming overdramatic poses, however, Sherman aimed to create conceptually demanding images that would stir the viewer’s imagination and fantasies. As the artist has explained: “What I didn’t want were pictures showing strong emotions, which was rare to see; in film stills there’s a lot of overacting because they’re trying to sell the movie” (Cindy Sherman cited in: David Frankel, Ed., Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills, New York 2003, p. 8). As perfectly illustrated in the present work, the scene is filled with tension. Although her face is fully visible, Sherman does not look into the camera. Negating our gaze while opening up a radical, thrilling complicity, the present work situates the viewer as both voyeur and protagonist – the work’s simultaneous consumer and subject.
Acting as a cultural mirror to the idealisation and fetishizing of stereotypical female roles in society – roles taken for granted for the best part of the Twentieth Century – these works occupy an ambiguous terrain between appropriation and imagination, fiction and reality. By employing the same seductive mechanisms as the film industry, Sherman positions the viewer as both critical observer and complicit actor in her beautifully open-ended fragmentary cinematic dramas.
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