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Katie Ryder: Cindy Sherman and Her Visitors

March 21, 2012

sherman.jpgPhotograph via flickr by Winter Now

By Katie Ryder

Take the escalators to the MoMA’s sixth floor, and there are five very tall Cindy Shermans waiting. Standing at perhaps 25 feet, she is first a sheepish knight, with a plastic sword and a long mullet, dressed in a naked woman’s body made of felt. Second, Cindy is a girlish jester in women’s blacktop sneakers, Puma brand socks, and the jewelry of a middleclass housewife, juggling pins hanging limp in her hands. Cindy is also a Lady. Her long red gown is a button-up—a modern dress—but she raises a haughty, feudal brow. She is Lady MacBeth in a costume of Lady MacBeth sold at a Halloween supply store. The background for the Cindys is a black and white photograph of the verdant edge of a lake, processed to look like a sketching, an etching, a woodcut. It is the Middle Ages as a homemade screen saver.

In this open gallery, there is a Dutch couple in hanging, gray layers—a stylish solution for winter. There is a woman who used to live in New York, or moved from Downtown to Uptown, in all black, with a smart, angular haircut and cat-eye glasses. She knows something about art, or used to. Two older wives in pink sweaters have been left, placed on the backless sofas. A man in his twenties carries a skateboard that isn’t showy—all wood and wheels—but it isn’t well used either. He and a friend move through smiling.

In the same room, Cindy is a giant prince, with no shoes. On the next wall she is the essence of a swan, in a short jutting wig, a feather bodice, and pink tights. She holds her head just slightly crooked and cocked, and her shoes are patent leather.

There are sneakers everywhere in the gallery. Purple Converse low-tops and Keds. Running shoes with light-blue relaxed-fit jeans. Brown, lace-up trail-runners. Suede slipper-like loafers with socks. Three pairs of mid-calf UGG boots in immediate view: purple, gray and black.

The words “CINDY SHERMAN” are projected onto a white wall. The two names flash through fonts—Arial Black, Bauhaus 93, American Typewriter, Calibri, Century Gothic, Desdemona, Garamond, Lucida. It’s a short loop. There is no Comic Sans or Papyrus.

I.
UNTITLED #474
In this photograph is a wealthy, gray-haired woman in a dress of brown and gold and yellow sequins, like a sparkling cheetah. Her face is whipped and milled by plastic surgery and her breasts under the sequins are like one single rolling hill. She stands in front of her husband’s drawing desk, we’ll say. His awards on the wall; his dead achievements behind her.

IN FRONT OF #474
A very overweight man, in a maroon long-sleeve button-up, un-tucked over thin legs. He works to calm the twitching muscles in his face, to catch his breath. Black shoes hide under the cuffs of his pants like turtles.

UNTITLED #465
This is a photograph of a cold-hearted, red-eyed, chalk-faced, soon-to-be-elderly heiress. She looks at us over her shoulder. Is there something we want?

IN FRONT OF #465
A man from Massachusetts, in a sweater made from an American Indian blanket. He wears the big, gold-rimmed glasses of a lab scientist. His wife is sun-weathered and strong-jawed, with gray flyaway hairs.

UNTITLED #470
An Asian woman in her early 60’s is in the hall of a European-style castle transplanted to California. Her eyebrows are painted on and the window cut of her dress exposes a bony upper chest. She is unimpressed and patient.

In front of her, a young man in a gold puffer jacket stands very close. He listens to museum-provided audio on large headphones, and aviator sunglasses hang from a string of twine around his neck.

“Well, and that presents another level of separation…” Says a man in the middle of the room with ½ inch white-gray hair and little black, square glasses, looking very much like Steve Jobs in a less lucrative life. Nearby, a slow-talking German repeats the motion of a wrist-only throw of a baseball as he explains what he sees.

II.

UNTITLED #145
A slave girl from baroque painting. She is in deep shadow and topless, and her teeth glow, rotting, but she is also the clothed and beautiful Orphan Girl at the Cemetery, with the same flexed jaw and the same dark eyes lacking lashes.

IN THE GALLERY:
There is a peach down coat, a brown down coat, a black down coat, black boots. Black high-heeled boots, black high-heeled boots with tassels, black high-heeled boots with shiny pointed-toes.

UNTITLED #296
Prospero’s Ariel as an alien dancehall queen. Her feather headdress might be her hair; the disco ball she holds is like a globe.

IN THE GALLERY:
Five, six, too many middle-aged men in little wire-rimmed or black-rimmed square glasses, partially bald with white hair, in dark jackets just a tad light for the weather.

UNTITLED #150
A boy-girl child above a construction site, sweating, touching her enormous, red lollipop-monster tongue.

IN THE GALLERY:
“See what I’m saying? The emotion… Photos can’t always, but here…” A young black man, in the square wire-rimmed glasses I apparently forgot to pick up at the museum door, speaks to an older black man in a Rasta hat. They’ve just met.

“Oh look at that one there! That’s a hell of a tongue! …Oh it’s a plastic piece!”

“Mmhmm.” The younger man is nodding.

“Cindy’s a bad girl. She’s bad.”

“Mmm.” The younger man nods and means it.

#420, 411, 415
A female clown catches an irritated nap sitting up. A bucktooth clown’s cheeks are tired from posing. A clown with a piano belt and a pink lemonade soda, downturned eyes and a bowler hat stolen from The Son of Man.

III:

Cindy has bleached dreadlocks and the deepest slouch. Breasts that rest on her knees like flimsy full water balloons.

She is the makeup queen of a Hispanic gang, in red halter-top, and barbed wire tattoo. She is the Minnesota hometown beauty queen—tan and blonde with breasts that sit on upper ribs like plastic grapefruits. She is a far-out Florida housewife in her FURTHER frock. A skinny, mocking yearbook star in a puff-paint t-shirt, shaggy hair, narrow, lined eyes.

She is an art professor. She is the mannish one in blonde braids and farm shirt stolen from the set of Oklahoma!—a lover of horses, and a wearer of earrings because she needs them. She’s a 5th grader in a boater hat, photographed on Flag Day.

IV:

“Maryanne doesn’t like this one.”

An older woman stares horrified at #263. She gropes at her handcrafted global-village-by-mail ceramic necklace. In front of her, the naked waist of a rubber man and the naked waist of a rubber woman are joined together by ribbon to form one thing. The female legs are spread and hacked off at the upper thigh.

The woman with the necklace can’t close her mouth. She runs her fingers along her Universalist beads like a last-ditch rosary.

“I’ll bet she doesn’t.”

#177
Two Italian women with impossibly smooth dark hair and silk scarves stand for a moment in front of a huge, pimply, prosthetic butt. They look at each other and keel over laughing.

“Regards-la!” An 11-year old French girl shrieks and grabs her mother’s arm as she passes a rocket-like plastic breast belonging to the Virgin Mary.

#216
“It’s almost ridiculing. It’s ridiculing.” This is a man in a tweed jacket.

“Hmm.”

“She’s got these weird isolated breasts like protrusions. You know?”

“Yeah.”

“The grandiosity of the pose, pulling apart.”

“Yeah.”

“The movement.”

“In this context it’s… some holy thing that only Mary and child…” He laughs. “It’s the start of civilization in context.”

Sherman is Mary. Sherman is Caravaggio’s Bacchus. Sherman is a mad woman holding the severed head of her enemy. She is a colonial banker by his papers. She is a Lady of Marie Antoinette’s court. Sherman is a Benedictine monk and the profile of a face, surrounded by black, with an enormous witchy nose.

“It’s scary because of all the darkness. See? She made it dark, right? And the nose?” A beautiful pregnant mother in her 30’s speaks to the 5-year old girl on her hip.

“Yeah,” says the little girl, through the muffle of puffy cheeks.

The husband stands in a nearby corner, behind an empty stroller, head bowed and both hands on his smartphone.

“Joe we’re going in the next gallery, and then we’re maxed out.”

“…”

“Joe.”

“OK.” Without looking up, he touches the place where the head of a child might be. Just checking.

*

“C’est plus modernes avec de dépense des couleurs…” A woman holds her hand up to Sherman’s face in #211 to show where the colors are spent.

*

“She takes a gillion pictures. I mean, can you imagine.” A rotund middle-aged white man in a yellow tennis sweater.

“She has to have an assistant.”

“Just to set it up. Those, the makeup she’s doing, the lights—just the makeup and the drapes.”

V.
La, la ne marche pas.”

“That was in a studio. And this one, of course.”

“This is just, like, everything I already hate about art.”

“The background of this. I hate it.”

“And her eyebrows.”

“It’s just so real it’s hard to look at. Or like. Or it’s not anything.”

“And people say ’oh no, she’s not an entertainer,’ but… It’s worth an inspection.”

“What are these ones? Fashion?”

“It’s very interesting.”

“Very.”

“Oh! This is the one. This is the original. This is her.”

“She’s very good at showing fake women.”

Untitled #153
The woman’s skin is wet and molting and she is dead:
“This is part of the series that was bone-yard-y.”

#263
“That’s the best one.”

“This one is disgusting.”

“Well, there’s also history portraits. There’s a reason for everything.”

#205
“This is still her.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yes Phyllis, this is all her.”

#263
“With a string hanging out!”

“There is poking fun, obviously.”

Two women with syrupy southern accents:

“Those were very hard for me to take.”

“The one where she was lying down on her face…You could see her eyes?”

“I know! Terrible.”

“None of them were titled. I’ll have to look in the book for prints.”

A woman in suede boots would like to check a coat downstairs as I’m picking mine up:

“You won’t take fur?”

“It’s the policy—and we never—can’t do it.”

“It’s fake.”

“—sorry—we don’t—never.”

“If it’s real will you take it?”

“—Yes.”

“It’s real!”

“…”

“It’s real. Will you take it?”

“No.”

________________________________________________________________________

Katie Ryder is a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.



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