By Jacqui Palumbo
Out of all of Cindy Sherman’s cinematic influences, it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) that she recalls most vividly from childhood. As curator Paul Moorhouse points out in the exhibition catalogue for Sherman’s retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery, running from June 27th to September 15th, the artist shares striking similarities with the film’s protagonist, who observes strangers from afar and imagines the intimate details of their lives.
For four decades, Sherman has cast herself as new characters based on what she sees. In her beloved “Untitled Film Stills” (1977–80), she played leading roles in imaginary films, but with familiar archetypes—women who are vulnerable, distraught, longing, or on the run; the object of her fear or desire just beyond the frame.
As time passed, Sherman’s quiet subversions of femininity blossomed into more pointed, caustic, or grotesque takes. She became famous art-historical subjects with fleshy prosthetic breasts; depicted herself as dead or monstrous in the sylvan world of fairy tales; and assumed the identities of childhood-nightmare-inducing clowns. This decade, she has been preoccupied with concepts of social status, aging, and the commodification of beauty on the internet. Her Instagram account is a work of art in itself. In an age when people are Facetuning their visages into uncanny-valley likenesses, Sherman, too, digitally stretches, nips, and tucks her features to show the artifice of online personas.
Since her rise to prominence in the 1980s, younger artists have been influenced by the alternate plane where Sherman’s personas reside. As Moorhouse has pointed out, Sherman does not impersonate specific people—“Instead, her invented characters occupy a private world: one whose cultural sources are readily recognisable, but which is nevertheless self-contained.”
Below, six early and mid-career artists speak to the resounding impact of Sherman’s work. Each of them first encountered her photographs in high school or in undergraduate programs. Some took direct inspiration from Sherman’s images, while others simply see a kindred spirit in how they construct their narratives—but all of them have created their own conceptions of reality that can be traced back to Sherman’s pioneering, radical world.
Ilona Szwarc first encountered Sherman’s Untitled #479 (1975) as a student at New York’s School of Visual Arts nearly a decade ago. She was struck by how the sequence showed Sherman changing from a bespeckled young woman into a flirtatious and self-assured bad girl over the course of 23 frames.
That particular work “inspired me to inspect my experiences of slow, sometimes invisible transformation specifically—my own process of cultural assimilation,” Szwarc explained. Szwarc’s exploration of her sense of self, as a woman and a Polish immigrant, is a thread throughout her visually divergent projects. “I am always switching between different expressions and personalities depending on what language I am speaking, never arriving at a fixed identity,” she said.
Szwarc often returns to the duplicity of self. An early series shows American adolescents who share distinct likenesses with their American Girl dolls. In a later, more exploratory body of work, Szwarc cast American women as her doppelgängers and conducted unsettling makeup tutorials with them, treating herself “as an object and a subject at the same time,” she explained.
But it’s her latest series, “Unsex me here” (2019)—which exhibited at Los Angeles’s Make Room this past spring—that most directly recalls the ongoing transformation Sherman explored in Untitled #479. Named after Lady MacBeth’s famous plea to shed her female sensitivity and become capable of baseness, Szwarc’s images depict a woman of status sitting comfortably in her elegant home and embracing her change into a beast. The camera becomes a vanity mirror for her gaze as she presses fur and scissors to her cheek. She wears a snout, but in one frame, we see it before it’s applied: as a disembodied rubber mask.
Sherman, too, is not interested in visual trickery, but shows the rough edges of artifice. “Makeup and prosthetics are never applied with perfection, but with intentional crudeness,” Szwarc said of her forebear, adding that such an approach “pushed me to move my characters even further, to the space of the backstage.”
Using green-screen, CGI, and technicolor costumes and makeup in her videos, Scottish multimedia artist Rachel Maclean imagines lurid worlds, equal parts saccharine and dystopian. “My work explores an idea of surface gloss and inner rot,” she said. Her candy-coated fantasy realms belie the uncomfortable truths and ills of society lingering beneath—sometimes quite literally, like when she played both a polished woman and the pink, Teletubby-like germs who plague her in the satirical ad spot Germs (2013).
Maclean saw in Sherman’s work “the potential to become other people, and take on other identities.” The younger artist often plays the entire cast in her films. She has become anthropomorphic cats in LOLCats (2012); furry blue children’s mascots in Over the Rainbow (2013); and a gold and bedazzled Pinnochio-like figure in Spite Your Face (2017).
For Sherman—the youngest of five kids—assuming new identities was a way to gain attention; later, when she moved to New York City, it was a way to overcome anxiety in social situations. Maclean, too, has loved costume since childhood. Yet Maclean doesn’t identify with her own roles; they are simply shoes she steps into to satirize cultural afflictions. In her feature-length film Make Me Up (2018), she acted alongside a full cast. Her Sailor Moon–like leading ladies, named after virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, battle each other in a patriarchal fever dream that riffs on art auctions, Orwellian surveillance, and girl-group dance numbers. It ends in Siri bloodily cleaving the powerful Figurehead played by Maclean—a reference to feminist Mary Richardson hacking at Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647–51) a century ago
Maclean’s work may visually take notes from Sherman’s grotesque and horror-inspired works, but it’s Sherman’s underlying perspectives on feminine gender roles and power hierarchies that have made the most impact. “She plays with categories of femininity, but in ways that are always cheeky and subversive and a little bit uncomfortable,” Maclean said.
When Julia Fullerton-Batten dreams up a scene, she imagines it as a director would. She stages highly detailed, cinematic stills with a focus on storytelling. “As time goes on, my sets get bigger and more elaborate,” she said. “I don’t know why I get such a high on it.”
Like Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” Fullerton-Batten’s images are moments in movies that were never made. “You’re creating a film in your mind,” she explained. “It’s catching that one moment and trying to tell it in one frame.”
The British photographer molds her grand narratives from personal memory, social issues, or historical reimaginings, with lighting positioned at odd and unnatural angles to subtly cast them in an otherworldly glow. An early series from 2005 inhabited the world of teenage girls’ daydreams, while in 2013, she cast Korean women in traditional garb to act out scenes in ultramodern Seoul. In her latest series, “Old Father Thames” (2018–19), Fullerton-Batten explores the visual history of London’s lifeblood, the Thames River. The project includes 20 scenes, including a recreation of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52); the flooding of the Tate Britain in 1928; and a reenactment of the 1814 Frost Fair, the last time the Thames froze enough to host a magical winter fête. Her version, shot in studio, is populated with Georgian-era revelry, including a fire-breather, contortionist, and elephant on the ice.
In her 2013 series “A Testament to Love,” Fullerton-Batten primarily referenced the painter Edward Hopper in vividly lit moments of isolation and discontent. But her characters are Shermanesque—women occupied by their thoughts, in moments of transition with their suitcases packed and their transportation booked. Though none of them are the photographer herself, Fullerton-Batten continues Sherman’s legacy of relaying intricate tales in a static frame. “You can sit with it,” she said of Sherman’s work. “Each image can tell so many stories.”
New York–based artist Jaimie Warren’s practice has always been an amalgamation of references, but rooted in self-portrait and discovery. In her earlier works, she surfed meme culture, photographing herself as found Photoshop mashups of uncanny celebrity resemblances and food puns, like “Lasagna del Rey” and “JonBeignet Ramsey.” In her “Art History Series” (2012–14), she tapped into Sherman’s tradition of updating famous art-history scenes, but often with a horror or sci-fi twist: In one image, she plays the Hellraiser demon Chatterer posing as Albrecht Dürer’s mother. The snapshot quality of Warren’s photographs, with makeshift costumes and sets, makes her work, together, feel like the album of a performer’s life—and in fact, it is.
Warren found a way to turn her creations into an experience. Today, she develops performances and installations with community and youth organizations with the same tongue-in-cheek approach. (She’s currently on the hunt for performers for a series at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works in spring 2020.) Warren also co-directs the nonprofit Whoop Dee Doo, which began 13 years ago as a variety show in the Midwest and now tours at universities, art festivals, and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“I love finding the best ways to make real and honest collaborative and community art,” she said. “And I love making crazy spaces and letting people go wild with their imagination.”
Warren has been influenced by Sherman’s chameleon-like nature, as well as the theatricality of drag shows. She found Sherman’s embrace of revulsion—specifically, her graphic, anatomical “Sex Pictures” (1992)—to be liberating when she took the grotesque to the stage.
“There was something so freeing in making myself look disgusting and having people react to it positively,” Warren recalled. She hopes that her own work will help to inspire others to be uninhibited, and bring out “their most guttural and complex and poignant traits.”
But it’s not just Sherman who emboldened her; like the rest of Warren’s work, it’s a mashup. She also credits other cultural figures who weren’t afraid to get messy for entertainment—namely Cookie Monster, Swedish Chef, and Miss Piggy.
There’s an eeriness to Holly Andres’s cinematic images, which often delve into girlhood, and are drawn from the filmstrip of Andres’s own adolescent memories.
The Portland, Oregon–based photographer uses protagonists who “reflect stereotypes of innocence and girlish femininity,” but the underlying themes in her work are intentionally unsettling, she explained.
Her 2015 series “The Fallen Fawn” looks like a Nancy Drew mystery, with two young girls discovering a lost suitcase in the woods. The narrative was based on Andres’s older sisters, who told her several years ago that they found such an item as children, not far from their home. Her sisters stashed it under their bed, regularly dressing up in the women’s clothing they found inside. It didn’t occur to them that the owner of the contents may have been in danger.
“My two sisters, then just two curious and naive girls, could have unearthed a treasure trove containing a sinister secret,” Andres said.
Though Andres doesn’t work in self-portraiture, her fine-art work is self-referential. And while she said it’s a “rite of passage” for many young female photographers to emulate Sherman’s work during their school years—herself included—Andres continues to find new appreciation for Sherman as an adult. Andres brings cinematic flair that references Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, and Jeff Wall to her editorial stories and ad campaigns. While on a fashion assignment for New York magazine in 2017, she found herself tapping into Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” to help conjure her own implied narratives.
Sherman’s versatility is best appreciated when seen all together, Andres said, reflecting on visiting her MoMA retrospective in 2012. “Sherman’s motif of transforming herself into vastly different characters is compelling in and of itself,” she mused, “but to see the repetition and the evolution of this practice created something bigger.”
Silin Liu has posed with many celebrities in her life. She’s brushed her fingers against Andy Warhol’s blonde locks, linked her arms around Princess Diana’s waist, and sat pensively next to Albert Einstein on a rocky outcrop by the water. Only Liu hasn’t really done any of those things. She’s 29 years old, and she’s not a time traveler.
Instead, Liu browses the internet for historical pictures of celebrities, seamlessly edits herself into the scene, then re-uploads her fictionalized versions of history. The internet, for better or worse, allows for many versions of the truth, and in Liu’s, she’s the best friend of some of the world’s most famous cultural figures. “Social media gives the masses a chance to become an icon,” she said.
Liu began her body of work in 2011, and as she continued, she found herself becoming more integral to the scenes. “My creation changed from a simple group photo to an engagement in the historical events,” she said. Like Sherman’s art-historical appropriations, Liu gives new context and commentary to iconic images using her own visage.
Liu posed with Frida Kahlo twice. In a 2014 work, which employs Nickolas Muray’s portrait Frida On The Rooftop (1946), Liu stands behind Kahlo, while the famous artist appears lost in thought. If the young artist had really been there, Kahlo might not have noticed her. When they met again in the 1939 image of Kahlo smoking in front of her pet hawk, they look to be fast friends. “We were sitting and chatting easily in her backyard,” Liu said. “I felt that we knew each other better.”
Though Liu has not directly referenced Sherman in her work, she says she is often asked if the American artist is a source of inspiration. Liu feels that if Sherman’s work is based in filmmaking, her own is more like the theater. Generally, she said, “the greatest impact of her work on mine is that I insist on using myself as a medium to deconstruct the world.”