Bonfire of the Vain

I’ve been looking forward to SFMoMA’s Cindy Sherman show for a long time. As much as this show is being presented as a merchandise mover, her work needs to be seen together in order to be properly appreciated. All too often I will see one of her images displayed by itself with no context. Large retrospectives are the only scenario where I can hope to see everything.* Or almost everything.

*If you missed this in New York can’t see this in San Francisco, do yourself a favor and check out MoMA’s interactive exhibition.

Sherman’s work itself is great. I can see how some people don’t like it* but I enjoy the way she holds a mirror up and tweaks our vices and vanity—in particular the way they risk turning us into a freak show. A lot of the work is funny and all of it blurs the line where we can’t be sure whether we’re in on the joke or part of the joke. It’s nice to have to be on my toes.

*It’s possible to very cynically go through this show asking “If this were a flickr stream would I care?” but since this IS in a museum, it already has additional context built in.

There’s also a common thread she keeps returning to regarding the presentation of women in media. The best part of seeing her work in retrospective is that it’s possible to see how the women she picks change as she ages. Where she starts off with starlets and clichés,* each new round of images picks up another age of women and another set of insecurities.** While these aren’t self portraits I can’t help but see the progression as being wholly unrelated to Sherman’s progression through life.

*That I still prefer the Untitled Film Stills is more a reflection of the quality of the original work rather than everything which has come since. The film stills are still fresh and fantastic. It’s wonderful to see them all together.

**There are images in each series which remind me of Elizabeth Taylor at different ages.

From a curation point of view, the way the show is set up falls a little into the trap of playing up the thread of female identity/presentation and marginalizing the works which don’t quite fit it. While it’s tempting and easy to make Sherman’s work just about her holding a mirror up to us and our expectations of women’s roles and appearances, not all her work fits this narrative.

I don’t believe that an artist needs to be tied into having a career with a single purpose. It’s awfully limiting to think that what interested someone artistically at age 25 has to continue to interest them at age 55.

But it’s also true that a person’s interests will build off of previous interests and not be completely random. While Sherman returns with fresh eyes to portraits of various female roles, her experiments into extreme makeup/emotion, extreme luxury, or extreme objectification within portraits make a lot of sense as she mines our cultural imagery. Some of these experiments work well, others don’t, but it’s nice to see them and how they influence later works.

Of these experiments, I really like the history portraits. Many of them are very funny in the way that I like Fernando Botero or Picasso’s Meninas—mining the clichéd masters of our past and re-presenting them to us through a funhouse mirror.* They also poke fun at the pedestal on which we’ve placed all those masters while acknowledging that we have to be familiar with the canon in order to get the joke.

*That Sherman was a decade ahead of Botero and  Sugimoto with regard to mining past masters says a lot about how on top of things Sherman is. And that Picasso was doing this when Sherman was born says a lot about him too.

And yes. That Sherman chose to present herself as Savonarola was the icing on the cake. We don’t burn things now. We satirize and mock them.

If you go to the Sherman show, take a look around the gallery while you’re looking at the photos. Odds are you’ll see a funny coincidence. Try not to laugh when you do.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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