Elimination, Imagination, And Criticism Under Concept Art Of Cindy Sherman

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As a representative of women’s art, the achievement of the American female artist Cindy Sherman plays an important role in Western postmodern art. She consistently uses a specific art, film or pop culture medium as a reference — B-grade film, magazine inserts, fashion, fairy tales, classical paintings, pornography, surrealist photography, and horror film — she always uses humorous narrative and strong exaggerated meanings to interpret characters in these references. In her works, reality and virtual are often mixed. She mocks the established exaggerated forms of characters, creates shocking and absurd works. Also, the femininity that she showed in her works brought different cultural critiques to her photography.

I. Elimination—“The death of the author” inside Sherman’s work

French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes once put forward the proposition of ‘the death of the author” in his essay. In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of the author’s identity—to distill meaning from the author’s work. For Barthes, this method of reading may be tidy and convenient but is sloppy and flawed: ‘To give a text an author’ and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it ‘is to impose a limit on that text.’ He believes that the price of the birth of the reader is the death of the author. Readers must thus separate a literary work from its creator to liberate the text from interpretive tyranny. The concept of this ‘author’ is inseparable from the concepts of God, creator, self, consciousness, and identity. “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

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Sherman’s creation of the series ‘Untitled Film Still’ attempts to dispel the existence of the author’s consciousness. She dresses as the heroine in a familiar but illegible film in a particular scene. In the form of self-portraits, she blends herself into various roles, such as actresses in B-grade film, angry housewives, seductress, career girl, tourist, domestic, mental patient. She eliminates herself, as the artist, from her work, allowing viewers to interpret comprehend only through the characters that she plays. Almost every grainy picture showed a woman alone: women in kitchens and bedrooms, in bars and hallways, women literally and figuratively on the road; women facing indecision, loneliness, anxiety, madness, betrayal, and longing; women watched through half-opened doorways, caught in their worlds, frozen mid-action or mid-thought. These seemingly deliberate role play is essentially work as the disintegration of the artist because when a person plays a different role and uses the familiar expressions and characters in the mass media and pop culture, is to let the viewers face to face to the culture of this generation instead of viewing herself. Sherman’s photographs were microcosms of a bigger and self-portraits more complicated universe. “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear.” The artist as an individual has disappeared, and the rest is the collective unconscious influence brought by the mass media era—the stereotypical femininity figures. When we face these seemingly familiar but incomprehensible works, Sherman’s disappearance makes people notice the simplification and stereotype of the female figure in the society, which provides the viewers with a chance to reflect on the problem of overwhelmingly feminine stereotypes performed on a body culturally coded as feminine. Therefore, the “author’s death” in Sherman’s work is not elimination, but to give the viewer a chance to reflect.

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Sherman has created ‘Untitled Film Stills,’ “Rear Screen Projections” and “Centerfolds” series, all of these have a sense of disintegration inside of them. The disintegration stems from the uncertainty of these series. When audiences analyze these works and try to explore the content, they will soon find out that because she provides so many figures in her works, the opportunity for audiences to spare their imagination has been obstructed. The attempts of understanding her work from one of these figures have been interrupted by the uncertainty. Sherman once said: “Some people have told me they remember the film that one of my images is derived from, but I had no film in mind at all.” And this uncertainty has the power to blur the viewer’s eyes, especially when it is a series of works which female artists invite audiences to use traditional male viewpoints to locate the concept of these works. However, in this process, the significant contradiction of gender identity has not been resolved but has been strengthened. Sherman’s works walk into the re-enactment of cultural imprinting and forces us to think about the truth of the problem through deliberate disintegration.

II. Imagination and criticism freed from the pursuit of reality’s limitations

From the 1980s to the 1990s, Sherman’s “Fashion Photograph,’ “Fairy Tales,” and “Disasters” series morally judged the artistic definition of identity, the mythological archetype and the social psychological characteristics of how these factors formed.

Beginning with the series called “Fashion collection,” Sherman began her exploration of how imagination and criticism can be freed from the reality in her work . Beginning in 1983, Sherman created several works about fashion photography: The first series was shot for Interview magazine. Sherman did not create an image that was the same as those dazzling fashion advertising photos. These models in the pictures look ridiculous, but they seemed to be very happy to wear those garments the same time. The second batch of works was taken for the design of Harper’s Bazaar, Sherman’s photos was more eccentric than before, the model image was frustrated, some were exaggerated wrinkles. The characters look old, tired and out of place. In 1994 she collaborated with Rei Kawakubo, providing advertisement material for the fall/winter 1994 collection of Comme des Garçons. In the ‘Fashion’ series, Sherman showed for the first time a sense of negative emotion. The pictures that resulted from Sherman’s efforts can be described as the antithesis of conventional fashion photography like that of Richard Avedon. The female persona is displayed as imperfect, distorted, psychologically challenged and worn down. The poses appear uncomfortable, clumsy and even silly. The clothes have lost their shape and are unflattering. Like all advertising is to promise consumers that their clothes can transform the dress into a perfect image, fashion photography creates a desire that can never be fully satisfied. The latest styles are always being chased by customers but will be replaced next year. The real purpose of advertising is to provide a fresh image about fashion to enhance the appetites of consumers. Sherman’s fashion photography undermines this, satirizes the standard of recognized female beauty, and exposes the advertiser’s instinctive instinct.

In this period, Sherman’s creation of a breakthrough in her career is the creation of her series called ‘Fairy Tales.’ In 1985, Sherman took the destructive factors in fashion work to a higher level in “Fairy Tales”. Her image became macabre and grotesque. Beginning with the ‘Fairy Tale’ series, Sherman began to gradually reduce the participation of personal image. These images are extremely unusual, not only because of horrific factors but also because that fact that our eyes are used to seeing those pleasing things and tends to ignore the things that are not. Using all the tools in the theater, including dramatic lighting, vibrant colors, costumes, prostheses, wigs, and supports, she creates images that are illusory, humorous, and no longer disruptive (comparing to her previous works). Some works present an extremely absurd structure. They are more of a doll, instead of a human. The influence of fairy tale on children is extremely important. Most of the fairy tales we usually touch on were stories come down to the princess waiting for the prince to rescue, but Sherman’s version of “Fairy Tale” has made some kind of critique about this cliché by showing horror, violence, artificial, humor which seems to be a new aesthetic attempt. These works are moving towards the dark underside of our collective fantasies, a place where the forces of a polymorphous unbridled sexuality and violence are set loose amongst the playthings of the imagination. When it come to the ‘Disaster’ series, the images in this series have become more unrecognizable and annoying, she uses the same theatrical techniques and fantasy figures to create bizarre scenes. Many pictures featured prosthetics, vomit, mold and other vile substances. Sherman poses in identifiable settings, yet in strange outfits that consequently creates a scary deformed image of the artist. Many of the pictures featured in oddly colored lighting in shades of blue, green and red. In these works, the body is surrounded in the middle. The animals that come from the fairy tales are combined with the dolls to become a deformed human body. In the display of repulsive object with a gorgeous photographic technique that highlights them, the viewers are subjected with a visual test to generate questions and reflection. In another way of interpretation, from 1986 to 1989, the horrific scenes in her series named “Fairy Tales” and “Disasters” were related to violence and chaos’ appearances in contemporary society. People are still plagued by the extreme adaptability of our body. The attacked body image in Sherman’s work reveals the hidden side of individual and resists the idealized and illusory idols we see from the mass media. Her work is not only for the obscurity, but also for the marginal characters in our culture. This express of horror and worries shouts out our concern for the future.


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  4. Heiferman, Marvin. ‘In Front of the Camera, Behind the Scene: Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills.” MoMA, no. 25 (1997): 16-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4381356.
  5. Meagher, Michelle. Woman’s Art Journal 29, no. 2 (2008): 62-66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20358171.
  6. Mathews, Heather E. Woman’s Art Journal 34, no. 1 (2013): 41-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24395333.


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