The renowned American artist Cindy Sherman offers London a special treat with her most recent solo exhibition at Sprüth Magers’ elegant West End gallery.
In her most recent body of work to be shown in the UK capital, Sherman makes a departure from the individual framed photographs that have been the mainstay of her artistic practice over her long and illustrious career. Instead, the viewer is offered a series of works in which a photographic image is printed onto Phototex adhesive fabric to create a montage –a vignette even- in which the decorative backgrounds are brought more to the fore as an intrinsic part of the work. They loom much larger than in her more familiar approach in which the backgrounds, still hugely important, play a more subliminal role in defining the narratives and characters unfolding in each work. Adhered directly to the wall, each takes on the form of a mural reminiscent of decorative traditions such as trompe l’oeil. The particular Arcadian scenes selected for the backgrounds themselves evoke the toile pattern tradition frequently used on home furnishings and wallpaper originally associated with grand homes and subsequently the emblem of aspiration to such in the age of industrial production.
It’s not that Sherman has abandoned her signature dress-up approach to turning the camera on herself as she morphs into familiar, enigmatic and complex characters in these new works. On the contrary, here the cavalcade of personae is as much part of the work as it ever was: a Victorian sideshow performer wearing contemporary trainers; a disengaged medieval soldier; a whacked-out frumpy gardener bearing too many blooms; a hippy doyenne resplendent in tie-dye dress and so on…
As if often the case –and one of the features that has made her work so memorable- Sherman’s pitching of these characters, their poses, gazes and contexts, walks a narrow line between the approachable and the alienating; one minute we think we understand exactly what is denoted or going on, the next we’re back in a sea of opacity.
Certainly, there is a strong sense of the fantastic and magical about these new works. Are these characters, perhaps, some kind of sentinels to a secret world, a mythical portal through which we could pass into a parallel universe? There is certainly something evocative about them, something of a childhood memory of ‘The Secret Garden’. And yet the frankly rather grubby characters speak more of a disillusioned adulthood, a kind of grown-up version of ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’ in which the hippy characters spout adherence to the dream but appear to have spent too much time experimenting with mind-altering substances of one form or another or trapped in destructive Free Love relationships to really believe it any longer.
But, perhaps most obviously, this is a body of work that engages directly with theatricality. The toile patterns to which the black ‘n white backdrops refer were produced in monochromatic prints and are particularly reminiscent of mass-produced nineteenth century children’s toy theatres with their changeable backdrops in which an entire universe could be created at the sweep of a hand. Such backdrops were also the stock and trade of early photographers’ studios in which the subjects could choose to be captured by early photography as a majestic or heroic character of their choosing, complete with evocative backdrop. In this sense, there is something that is deeply art historic about Cindy Sherman’s new works, at once referencing the earliest years of the discipline that she has made her own, casting a glance back to a time when photography was hardly the revered art form that it has become today. In fact, in its earliest form, it shared a lot in common with the sideshow from which some of her depicted characters appear to have escaped.
There is at once something simultaneously nostalgic and realistic – maybe even a tad jaded- about the works. They speak of a time in which the ability of even the adult audience to use the new medium as a form or fantasy or escapism had a childlike eagerness and innocence to it. And yet, in offering us up her entourage of humanly grotesque characters, some with a distinctly post hippy-trail air, Sherman also readily highlights that tension that now exists between the medium and the psychology of the contemporary mass audience. We want to believe. But we wouldn’t count on it.
The exhibition continues at Sprüth Magers in London until 19 February 2011.