Being Cindy Sherman: The New York artist dresses up as a trophy wife to explore her fear of ageing and Botox

 

One gilt-framed portrait features a woman with a stern-faced muscularity reminiscent of Laura Bush, another depicts a society wife with a powdered décolletage and a Sarah Palin smile. Turn around in the small Mayfair gallery and you are sure the oversized portraits of firm-bosomed women in pearls and pashminas are the distinguished faces of first ladies, trophy wives and elderwomen you have seen before.

The déjà vu, it turns out, is intentional. These women are meant to be reminiscent, tantalisingly familiar even in their anonymity.

But whoever you think they are, or represent, they are not to be mistaken for Cindy Sherman, the New York artist who has made a distinguished career out of her dress-up box of clowns, centrefold models and B-movie actresses whose identities she assumes in her photography.

These 14 stately figures are her most recent subjects, unveiled today at Sprüth Magers gallery in London, and they were invented, as usual, in her studio, using latex, a bright overhead light and theatrical make-up with only herself in central casting.

The women, like many of her subjects, verge on the humorous, even grotesque, but Sherman plays them straight, without a hint of irony.

Andy Warhol once said of Sherman that "she's good enough to be a real actress". Sherman doesn't disagree. Who she is and who she "acts" are very distinct, though people don't always get the difference, she explains.

Who she is today is a birdlike blonde, dressed as an unassuming every-woman with a plain, scrubbed face that eschews the vanities of the heavily painted Mrs Robinsons in her latest works. One suspects this, the polite tone and the sunny smiles, could well be another disguise with the real impenetrable Cindy Sherman buried somewhere underneath.

Sherman says she has got into rows with journalists who refuse to accept that her photographs, spanning more than three decades and almost all exclusively featuring her own disguised image, should not be seen as solipsistic self-portraiture.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1990, she said: "I feel I'm anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren't self-portraits."

Today, she's more equivocal. Aged 55, she is part of the generation she seeks to portray in these pictures. They are not self-portraits but they could be the Dorian Gray's of her interior world, she suggests, in which some of her own fears of ageing are mirrored in their liver spots, sepulchral tones and folds of sagging skin peeping out from beneath their glamorous veneers.

"I don't want people to think I'm making fun of them. I can relate to these women. I'm about the same age as some of the characters... I wasn't sure I wanted to include some of them in the show. They don't go far enough away from me recognising myself... it was also about recognising the anxiety when I think 'gee, I'm successful'.

"It's the way I look at myself, critical but sympathetic. I was surprised when I was blowing them up on computer by how much empathy I had for them. There was a pathos behind their eyes. I suddenly started to feel sorry for them."

Their issues, she says, are also hers. "There are issues of Botox which I've experimented with. I have done it but I don't like the way it feels....The frozen forehead isn't good for my work. Every couple of years I look at my lines and I want to get rid of them. I think maybe I should try it [Botox] again. In five or 10 years, I might think 'fuck it' and have a face lift."

So how did Sherman, an art student at the Buffalo State University who failed her photography class as a freshman, ever claim this highly specialised area of art as disguise as her own?

"As a therapeutic thing, I'd hang around in the studio (at university) done up in character. I wouldn't do anything about it. Sometimes I'd go to parties dressed in character. Then, a friend rented a photo booth and I dressed up as Lucille Ball. I had this red wig which must have inspired me to do her. My boyfriend at the time watched me dressing up all the time and said I really should be documenting it."

At the age of 23, she did just that, creating a set of 69 "Untitled Film Stills", in which she dressed up as a strangely familiar yet unnamed actress in shots reminiscent of foreign films, B-movies and film noir. The black and white shots, which Sherman completed in 1980, launched her career. In 1996, New York's Museum of Modern Art paid $1m for the complete series.

She followed it up a year later with "Centrefolds", commissioned for Artforum magazine. Her images parodied soft-core porn magazine shots and Artforum rejected them outright.

The images have since been appropriated by feminists and placed on university modules on postmodern identity politics.

She has always expressed ambivalence over this ("I don't read the stuff", she says), yet it sounds as if her dressing up, in the early days at least, was a feminist protest of sorts. "I was aware when I was brought up of how I was supposed to look a certain way. Wearing make-up, high heels, these uncomfortable shoes and having to wear girdles. It started off as questioning..."

Not everyone gets the irony of work featuring femmes fatales and vixens even now, three decades after the "Centrefolds" controversy. "Some men don't get the irony," she says. She doesn't appear angered by this, outwardly at least, but she is planning a show in which she will, finally, "do" men.

"I view it like equal opportunities photography... But it's harder for me to relate to men's faces and bodies. These women show vulnerability. Men don't. They're more bullish."

Since the late 1970s, Sherman's art has come to command some of the highest prices in New York and her recent relationship with the former Talking Heads singer, David Byrne, has only led to greater veneration. But she's not rock and roll, she insists. "I don't think artists should be seen as stars or celebrities. I don't believe they should court attention."

And with that she's off, all five feet nothing of her melting into the crowd. A few moments later it becomes hard even to recall the details of her scrubbed clean, nice-but-forgettable face. The only reminder of her are the grotesque, glamorous women glaring out from the gallery walls, with just a hint of the other Cindy Sherman creeping out from beneath.

Cindy Sherman, Sprüth Magers, London W1 to 27 May - http://spruethmagers.net

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