- Cindy Sherman
- Untitled #282
- color photograph
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Within the frame of Untitled #282, Cindy Sherman offers an idiosyncratic, thoroughly provocative image. Simultaneously entrancing and disturbing, the subject exudes emotional ambivalence, almost dismissive of her suggestive pose and daringly sheer dress. Indeed, Sherman's portrayal of this distant character - for her works are deliberately not self-portraits - is spawned from the artist's pre-designed subversion of various deeply rooted female archetypes. This is Cleopatra, Venus and Medusa, among others, audaciously rolled into one powerful and compelling female representation; she is a prime example of Sherman's venerable feminist agenda.
Untitled #282 was created in 1993 as a part of Sherman's second Fashion Series, an exciting collection of staged photographs, which built upon her previous explorations of media-constructed stereotypes of women. Here, the artist imaginatively blends a couture fashion shoot of women clad in clothes by designers (in this instance Jean-Paul Gaultier) with an inversion of art history's idyllic reclining nude. Relaxing in a transparent skin-toned frock and stockings, a fringed sweater and a protruding stomach, Sherman not only assumes a semi-grotesque appearance, but she also positions herself so as to directly confront the viewer. Thus, she ultimately obscures the demure beauty of the traditional muse.
This twisting of the gaze - from the traditional side view to the head-on composition of Untitled #282 - finds precedent in Sherman's Centerfolds of 1981. One of her strongest and best known series, these photographs capsize the traditional magazine centerfold, turning it horizontally and replacing the arousing and inviting model with disturbing, vulnerable and emotionally ambiguous women in huddled or reclining positions. Curator Lisa Phillips has written of the series, "Sherman's women are subject and object all at once... These [works] are clearly staged and artificial and expand on the tradition of performance art and the photography of artists like Eleanor Antin, William Wegman, Gilbert and George, Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. It has been pointed out that the horizontal orientation of the pictures is a dramatic shift as well, to another kind of pictorial space—one in opposition to the typical vertical, 'phallic,' and 'fetishized' viewpoint." (Exh. Cat., New York, Skarstedt Fine Art, Cindy Sherman: Centerfolds 1981, 2003, p. 7)
The end result of Untitled #282 is strikingly similar: here, Sherman positions herself vertically as both subject and object by way of her confused sex symbol status. Her sultriness and availability conjures art historical traditions of the objectified muse or Venus, yet the downward tilt of the camera effectively conveys the work's more complicated interest, as its phallic potential is both heightened by a sense of predatory voyeurism, as well as negated by Sherman's undesirable appearance.
Also, like art history's muses before her, Sherman reclines on a lavish array of pillows as she offhandedly clutches a fan. Throughout the Western canon of art, portraits of women leisurely airing or suggestively covering themselves with fans are endlessly prevalent. Sherman's inclusion of the fan in this instance is particularly evocative of Ingres's Grande Odalisque (1814), in which the concubine grasps an exotic peacock feather fan. Interestingly, like Untitled #282, Grande Odalisque features a woman who appears emotionally disconnected and physically distorted, but nonetheless highly sexual. Sherman's piece is decidedly more interesting than attractive - her merger of art historical motifs with an over-the-top frontal composition undermines the dominance of the male gaze.
Of the piece's additional latent references, curator Rochelle Steiner has noted, "Untitled #282 presents a different female stereotype—the femme fatale. Here a dramatically posed and sexually charged woman lounges on the cushions of a large sofa. Her sheer, cream-colored skirt and wrap, as well as her Medusa-like headdress, are stylish, yet she is likewise far from perfect." (Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Cindy Sherman, 2003, p. 16). The femme fatale, one of the most recognizable archetypes of art and literature, lures men with her irresistible beauty, sensuality and mystery, only to deliver them to destructive and dangerous ends. Sherman's femme fatale, however, is a severely tainted act - her passionless expression, apparent apathy and eccentric garments are a far cry from such unforgettable femme fatale portrayed throughout cinematic history. Greta Garbo is a renowned example of the archetype, and her roles of the 1920s such as The Temptress (1926) and Flesh of the Devil (1927) epitomize the provocative and sultry screen sirens. Seemingly, Sherman convolutes Hollywood's glamorous publicity photos and posed portraits, such as the 1946 photograph by Cecil Beaton of Garbo as she reclines provocatively upon a couch. Where Garbo's nonchalance and downcast eyes seem to be inviting her next victim hither, Sherman's character stands in marked contrast - her aloofness suggests she is in full possession of her sexuality.
The depth of Untitled #282 is furthered via Sherman's mixing of the femme fatale archetype with Medusa, the ancient Greek monster with hair of snakes and the power to turn onlookers to stone. Conjured here, more specifically, is Caravaggio's famous Medusa (1597), but whereas Caravaggio's depiction is one of pain, with a contorted facial expression and dripping blood, Sherman's enactment of the character is subdued and in control. The viewer is therefore forced to feel a certain discomfort upon encountering Sherman's portrayal - we are not turned to stone, but we are certainly confronted and forced to rethink tradition.