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Art exhibit: Cindy Sherman, queen of the camera

Posted 7:44am on Saturday, Mar. 23, 2013

The last time photographer Cindy Sherman came to Dallas was in 1988. She was 34 years old, and the Dallas Museum of Art was hosting a retrospective of her work. She was burning white-hot and had the accolades and the portfolio to justify the hosannas.

Again, 25 years later, the DMA is hosting a huge survey of her life's work. She's no longer trendy hot. She has demonstrated staying power and the chops to be considered one of the greats. Her photographs are so recognizable, there is a Cindy Sherman style that has generated treatises on identity. Plus, her work sells for record amounts, more than $1 million for one of her series and mid-six-figure amounts for a single print. This befits a woman who chiseled out a space among the men in the late 1970s when few women could.

No one was more surprised at her success than Sherman; she always suspected she would be found out.

"I wondered how it is that I'm fooling so many people. I'm doing one of the most stupid things in the world ... and people seem to be falling for it," she said in an interview several years ago. Lately, though, Sherman seems reconciled to the fact that what she considers stupid acts of art have a resonance, and thankfully, she keeps making them.

This is the last stop on the 2012-13 U.S. tour of "Cindy Sherman" (no colon with extraneous titling is necessary). It is a survey of 157 photographs, from the earliest 1977-1980 black-and-white "Untitled Film Stills" series (purchased in 1996 by the Museum of Modern Art and the organizers of this exhibition) to her most recent endeavors, 14-foot-tall photo murals. Almost all of them star the chameleon visage of Sherman, with the exception of a few grisly side trips through a period of macabre still lifes.

Her most recent works are similar to her first portraits of stereotypes. When she was young, she self-starred in photographs made to look like press-packet photos from films of the 1950s and '60s. There was Film Still #21, with the new-in-town blonde ingenue dwarfed by threatening skyscrapers; the brunette bubble-headed fast girl of Film Still #7, dressed only in lingerie accessorized with a martini glass; and the innocent hitchhiker of Film Still #48, in a prim dirndl skirt and pristine white tennis shoes on a lonely country road, suitcase by her side. Every model was Cindy Sherman.

In every shot, the costume, makeup, set and lighting were perfectly coordinated to evoke either Hitchcockian thrills or noirish suspense. All 70 "Untitled Film Stills" are on display at the DMA. From the very beginning of her career, Sherman has always worked alone, staging the sets, setting the lights, doing all the costuming and makeup, then pulling the trigger when it was time to take the shot.

She controls every aspect of her intimate fantasies, taking advantage of her nubile figure after "Film Stills" to create the "Centerfolds" series. These photos, too, are untitled, but over the years, many of her series have acquired descriptors -- "Centerfolds," "Sex Pictures," "Clowns" and "Society Portraits." The 2-by-4-foot photographs of the "Centerfolds" series have the proportions of stapled two-page magazine spreads, with women in vulnerable positions photographed from above, from a position of dominance. The women are down on the floor, stretched out on a bed or lying on the couch, waiting for a silent phone to ring.

The "Centerfolds" series suggests lasciviousness, but Sherman instead serves up a cold shower. A young woman in navy-blue gym shorts and a grubby white T-shirt lies on a bare wood floor in a slightly fetal position. Is she asleep? Has she been injured? The questions beg a response the voyeur does not expect. Hard-to-answer questions are also provoked by the school girl in an orange plaid skirt lying on an orange tile floor, holding a crumpled singles advertisement. These images of young women were fodder for countless screeds by gender studies scholars in the '80s.

Immediately outside the "Centerfolds" gallery are some of her fashion people from the early 1980s. Dressed in Balenciaga, they are meant to represent the public relations flacks, fashion editors and fashion flock. They looked battered ( Untitled #137) , angry ( Untitled #122) and screechingly loud ( Untitled #119) . This series has abrasive stereotypes, which are amplified when compared with the passive "Centerfolds."

Sherman knows the stereotypes. She has been studying them for years. She also knows she is categorized as a "nice girl." It is repeated often, by critics, other artists and even Sherman, who acknowledges that "nice" is a pejorative when you are an art star. It is a "sickening" label, she said in an interview. Nice, which she is, is not interesting.

Even nice girls can have a dark side, and when Sherman unleashed hers, midcareer when a marriage was failing and friendships were tested by her growing fame, she showed a truly powerful way with ugliness.

The overuse of her work as visual case studies for women's issues and a disintegrating marriage to French video artist Michel Auder, whom she eventually divorced, caused her to retreat to her studio and absent herself from in front of the camera. During the hard times, she quit using herself as a model and explored the icky side of life. She made photographs of disgusting piles of slime, entrails and flies. Intriguing from a distance, they elicited audible "euuuuuws" up close.

These aren't the most disturbing. Sherman, who is always on the hunt for costumes, wigs, masks and shoes for her grab bag of inspirational props, stumbled across a catalog for anatomically correct medical mannequins. It was a "euuuuuw-reka" moment. She bought one of both, took them apart and, using them with doll parts and masks, proceeded to stage gruesome tableaus with mismatched heads, arms and genitalia. Some scenes are funny -- a visible tampon string emerging from the proper orifice is obviously not what the manufacturer had in mind; others are downright horrifying, such as the pile of parts assembled to look like a grotesque nude lying in a come-hither pose on a carpet of wigs. These photographs can be quite disturbing, and the reaction to them often baffles her. There is nothing particularly accurate about the mannequins' anatomy, yet they scare people who rush from the gallery rather than hanging around to participate in a group chat about pornography, titillation and fetishism.

Sherman had an awkward period when she returned to modeling in the "Historical Series." These are re-creations of historical paintings. She is a ringer for the Bacchus by Caravaggio and a very good approximation of the Virgin and Child by any number of old masters. She is a languid courtesan ( Untitled #193), a pope and a period gentleman in dire need of grooming. She is old and young, man and woman. This gallery is painted that deep Meadows Museum red to denote "olde arte," and the works are hung salon-style, crowding each other. It's as close as she comes to kitsch.

She returned to what she does best in 2008. Sherman, now with her own crow's feet, made a series depicting mature, wealthy women. Today, at 59, Sherman fits the demographic but not the look of her Park Avenue matrons. They are not the women of the botoxed "Housewives of ..." series. Here there are no blondes, bodices spilling silicon or too-short skirts. These women are heavily made-up, coifed with precision, decorously dressed and bejeweled. For these, Sherman photographed herself in front of a green screen in her studio, then stripped in appropriately lush backgrounds -- a drawing room, a library, a columned portico.

She has been taken to task for these depictions, just as she was for her ingenues. Critics have said she was being cruel for such things as showing the support hose worn under a caftan, as if that were a needless skewering. But Sherman is still a student of the fashion magazines and movies; she knows that varicose veins demand support hose. Her older women, with breasts that are closer to their waistlines than shoulders, and tummies that no amount of Spanx can completely flatten, are just right. They look directly into the camera, unlike the ingenues, who never did. She chronicles women in what they assume are the expected poses -- vulnerable or kittenish vixen when young, formidable once past the child-bearing years.

The most recent group of portraits can't be overlooked. They are 14 feet tall and are placed front and center in the exhibition. They are bag-lady-like in their complete disregard for what is appropriate to wear. Here, Sherman is androgynously decked out as a juggler, or as a renegade knight from a pitiful Renaissance fair. The most wonderful extreme is her apprentice bag lady in a baggy flesh-colored body stocking, tap shoes, sparkle trunks and a ratty feathered bustier with gold Lurex opera-length gloves. She is standing in front of a huge black-and-white mural of Central Park. She isn't screaming at you, reciting Bible verses or trying to feed the pigeons newspaper scraps, but it is only a matter of time.

Growing old with Cindy Sherman is a delight. It isn't always pretty; in fact, it is hardly ever pretty. But there is always subtext and depth, as well as mystery and humor.

Her art makes for a very satisfying relationship of long standing. If you haven't seen her, you should. If you met her a long time ago, it's time to rekindle the flame.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817 -390-7113

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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