Untitled #540, 2010/12. All rights Cindy Sherman
In 1992 a 26 year old me came across a giant psychosexual masterpiece Untitled, #257 by Cindy Sherman in the window of a Soho gallery. A dripping jewel of cum illuminated in the darkness; held in suspense by gravity and photography as it hovered above a gaping manaquin's mouth. It blew me away and infected me with one of my most treasured and complex memes. It was a £1000 then, a price that felt out of reach but also I was not brave enough even to own it. 'Owning' a Sherman in a feminist context is a fascinating prospect but it is a constant regret that I do not and now cannot possess even a bit of her.
The recent private view of an almost complete retrospective in London (the image described above is absent) gave me the opportunity to reconnect to the exquisite pain of that regret and brush up against her genius and courage in the hope that a little more might rub off.
The majority of the evening was spent searching for the actual Cindy Sherman in the multiple rooms of the National Portrait Gallery and although surrounded by monumental self portraits I was still not entirely sure whether I would recognise her. At one point all the women of a certain age could have been her. Eventually though I found a diminutive and humble human in a dress which could have been made from the same fabric as the wicked witch's ruby slippers.
Sherman's early introvert documentation are iconic tropes for any contemporary adolescent obsessively seeking understanding through the selfie. Hers have evolved over decades of dogmatic repetition into a thorough examination of persona, from the 'protector' of the young through experiments in cultural stereotype to an eventual realisation that all persona is a barrier to progress towards any real understanding of self. This theme builds through the exhibition as the work becomes increasingly surreal and less defined by anything as tangible as gender.
The final rooms are potentially most baffling and I met two curators struggling with the enormity of defining Sherman's practice for upcoming presentations. My solution is to surrender to the lack of understanding and in so doing be free from the conventions of narrative and rationalisation. Through this filter I can see that Sherman has handed over the contents of her dressing-up box to the randomness of the universe, inserting these new personas into the primordial landscapes that hint at the Jungian ooze that we are formed from and ultimately return.
The exhibition but especially the discussion chaired by Bonnie Greer 'Imitations of Life' re-inspires the quest for knowledge in the hope that somehow it will assist in the alchemy that is the successful synergy of 'self' and work. Sherman is the mistress and poster girl for us all in our attempts to be free of persona as glass ceiling and her intimate explorations are the canvas onto which we project the different stages of our own anxiety. Adoption is my unique USP, my disability and superpower. My own relationship to the existential lack of certainty is my nature and allows for a confluence with other's, it is a useful skill in a photographer seeking understanding of self through the exploration of the lives of others. I am however less comfortable turning that objective gaze onto myself, that takes a different kind of courage. A self-portrait is like hearing my own voice played back, I do not recognise it and I struggle to like it.
Greer disrespects photography by suggesting Sherman transcends the medium. This is often said of any artist who manages to work successfully with it. Photography is such a difficult tool to work with to create original work as it is the most present of mediums. Results are compared and defined by the aesthetic rules of contemporary capitalist culture. Sherman like any artist has chosen her medium and is masterful in its use and she is undoubtedly a photographer. She is after all part of the generation that discovered photography as an art form in the 70's so eloquently defined by writers like Sontag. Each new generation since has re-discovered these lessons and possesses them as if they are new truths. Similarly with gender and sexual politics, Sherman reminds us that all we need to do is look back to recent history to find the same complex questions we are asking now. How amazing and courageous these artists were to feel the new power of the medium for the first time and dare to use it. I can only be in awe.