- Cindy Sherman
- Untitled #421
- signed, numbered 6/6 and dated 2004 on a label affixed to the reverse
- colour photograph
- 138.9 by 199.9cm.
- 54 5/8 by 78 3/4 in.
Sprüth Magers Lee, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Sherman's artistic journey consists of an ever-present questioning of identity as a social construct which she radically confronts in the arena of the very traditional genre of portraiture. Sherman weds her bold subject matter with an even bolder choice of the medium of photography which at the time was still on the boundaries of fine art. Along with other young artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sherman sought to challenge the meaning and the eloquence of the "image" in art. As the artist has stated, when she began her artistic studies in the 1970s "painting was still the big thing, but I was less and less interested in it... I was into conceptual, Minimal, performance, body art, film – alternatives." (Cindy Sherman, The Complete Untitled Film Stills, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2003). Sherman's radical photographs were a provocative, original and influential force in late twentieth-century art, establishing her at the forefront of innovators and as one of the artists most responsible for the importance of photography in the art of the last few decades.
With impressive rigor and inventiveness, Sherman has demonstrated an internal cohesion throughout each successive series of subjects, lending a great potency to the trajectory of her oeuvre. Sherman practises an amazing form of alchemy, first championed in her historic Film Stills of 1977-1980 and fully evident decades later in Untitled #421 from 2004. Although the viewer is presented with a single still shot, Sherman's careful arrangements of detail and expression allow us to intuit a more complex narrative and deeper array of feelings than one might expect from a single staged image. Initially Sherman's work appears to deal with the surface traits of portraiture, specifically gender, social status, fashion and accoutrements, all presented by the photographer herself as the figure to portray her chosen subject or character. Yet there is an underlying mystery that compels the viewer to engage intellectually with the portrait or scene, and often, in ways subtle or overt, the darker side of humanity is the eloquent subtext of the image. The Clowns of 2003-2004 are perhaps an ultimate summation of Sherman's ability to go beyond the veneer of the image and delve into the pathos or horror behind the mask or, in this case, the greasepaint.
This evolution began with the advent of the Fairy Tales and Disasters of 1985-1989 in which the impending sense of danger and tension in the Centerfolds of 1981 became a shocking reality amid a phantasmagoric and nightmarish setting. This startling shift toward fears, taboos, desires and dreams was translated into a more comic mode in the History Portraits of 1988-1990, where Sherman seemed to mock both the sitters and Old Master portraiture with the grotesque and obvious stylization of the genre and its patrons seeking legitimacy through the iconic presentation of their image. This sense of comedy mixed with the drama of life is particularly relevant to the Hollywood/Hampton Portraits and the Clowns of 2000-2004 in which Sherman's embodiment of a character is particularly pertinent. With works such as Untitled #421, Sherman adopts perhaps the quintessential masquerade figure since the greasepaint on the clown's face is a fixed and constant expression of an extreme emotion. Although circus clowns belong to the realm of childhood, their exaggerated smiles are often associated with a hidden darkness and disturbing danger. In an interview held in her studio during the creation of the Clown pictures, Sherman described the genesis of the idea: "I'd been going through a struggle, particularly after 9/11...I still wanted the work to be the same kind of mixture – intense, with a nasty side or an ugly side, but also with a real pathos about the characters – and [clowns] have an underlying sense of sadness while they're trying to cheer people up. Clowns are sad, but they're also psychotically, hysterically happy. ...I like that balance – that you could be painted to look like you're happy and still look like you're sad underneath, or the opposite too. The more research I did the more levels I saw." (the artist cited in: Betsy Berne, "Studio: Cindy Sherman" in Tate Magazine, No. 5, May-June 2003)
The Clowns also introduce stylistic innovations into Sherman's oeuvre which enhance the eccentricity of the series. The backgrounds of the "Clowns" pictures are digitally enhanced perhaps to complement the carnival quality of the subject or as a counterpoint to the fixity of the facial expression. The multi-coloured and shimmering liquidity of the background in Untitled #421 is one of the more complex and vibrant in the series, providing an intense setting for the inclusion of two figures in the composition – another rarity in Sherman's work. In the catalogue for the 2006-2007 exhibition of Sherman's work that began at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, Régis Durand wrote eloquently about these revolutionary aspects of the Clowns. "The occasional inclusion of several clowns in the same picture hints at a perverse, lecherous community of individuals...The extravagance of the costumes is heightened by the digitally produced backdrops, which accentuate the picture's troubling, acid atmosphere. It is as if we were being sucked into an endless, dizzying spiral where bestiality, lust, and psychotic regression are increasingly apparent beneath the psychedelic veneer...[The clown] is our escort and guide as we plunge into the world of the grotesque. ..We stand, with the clown, on the brink of infinite possibilities, waiting expectantly for the unimaginable performances that are still to come." (Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Jeu de Paume, Cindy Sherman, 2006, p. 268).