Roy Lichtenstein is an artist who’s work I feel a great deal of familiarity with despite not knowing a huge amount about him. Lichtenstein was a pioneer of the pop art movement and his most famous work appropriates both the content and aesthetic of the comic book, although he exaggerates and distorts by either enlarging the image to a huge size or cropping to focus on details. I like the way Hal Foster described his work as the “handmade readymade” – a description that both recognises the craft and skill that Lichtenstein put into his paintings and the conceptual underpinning of his practice:
“His work was…not industrially mechanised, but blending careful techniques of handwork (drawing, tracing, painting, emphasising brushstroke, line and Ben-Day dot) with the reproduction and screening of found images.” (Churchwell, 2013)
The exhibition features a couple of examples of work from the 1960s that could be classed as typical examples of pop art, but, focuses mainly on his late period work from the 1990s such as the reflection and nudes series’. As well as pop culture, Lichtenstein also applies his signature style to ‘master’ painters – responses to the work of Monet and Picasso are featured in the exhibition. While there is often irony and humour present in Lichtenstein’s work, Livingstone (2019) states that Lichtenstein took great delight in re-imaging familiar works of art. This is something I would definitely agree with, and also something that is present throughout his work – despite the clear way the source material for his paintings is directly on show, there is also a clear creative ‘voice’ present:
“There is never a sense of him trying to deceive the viewer, or of passing off a found image as his own; the pleasure, on the contrary, lies in the affectionate translation of sources clearly identifiable to educated viewers into a composition of graphic clarity and economy that rejects the personal handwriting of brushwork, but that paradoxically could not have emerged from any studio but his own.” (Livingstone, 2019)
Out of all of the work on show, I found the reflections series the most inspirational. Many of these revisit famous images previously made by Lichtenstein but feature metalised stripes across the composition which disrupt and abstract the image as well as making a comment about mirrors due to the reflective nature of the material. The exhibition notes draw attention to the way the stripes give a sense of depth by emphasising the foreground and background of the pictures which is normally absent in Lichtenstein’s work as it is defined by the deliberate flatness of the compositions. Lichtenstein himself is quoted as saying he made the work as an excuse to make abstract work – a typically light hearted response that does not make the more studied reading any less true.
This exhibition was a revelation to me and is particularly relevant at this moment as thoughts about how I can interpret the brief for assignment 2 is very much on my mind. The brief for this asks that we use archive or readily available images as our starting point – the way Lichtenstein transformed the work he appropriated, particularly the abstraction that is present in the reflections series, could be a way of working I can incorporate myself.
See posts from my previous course ‘Understanding Visual Culture’ and ‘Documentary’ about Cindy Sherman here and here.
I rarely get the chance to visit London and often feel that means I miss out on so many interesting exhibitions. A brief layover after attending a friends wedding meant I got the chance to see the Cindy Sherman’s retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Sherman is best known for her series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ and although I was aware of other aspects of her work it is this series that I am most familiar so I was looking forward to gaining a deeper understanding of her practice. The first thing to note about the exhibition is that it is expansive and thorough in its coverage of Sherman’s output – from early student work predating ‘Untitled Film Stills’, to the present day.
In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Nicholas Cullinan describes Sherman as “one of the most influential and important artists of our time” indeed, ahead of her time as her practice of appearing in her own work predates the modern “seemingly insatiable desire for photographic self-representation”. However, her work challenges the assertion that portraiture should be synonymous with personal truth:
“Sherman’s photographs conceal and mask rather than reveal and illuminate. They often look like portraits but as invented characters, sometimes even iterations of characters and types, they complicate even the most basic assumptions of identity and representation.” (Moorhouse, 2019: 7)
Laura Cumming makes this assessment of the body of work on display, paying particularly attention to Sherman’s later series’:
“Sherman has by now invented more than 600 personae; every one of them is a recognisable type, to some extent, and yet also an individual. The gap between the two is the most fascinating aspect of her art; particularly conveyed in the portraits of women who are not young any more. The hostess who thinks she looks a bit like Hilary Clinton and has taken Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue cover shoots to a makeover artist who hasn’t quit pulled it off. The Fifth Avenue socialite whose facelift has slipped. The Republican matron still trying to look like a college sweetheart.
Foundation leaves a tidemark, concealer reveals itself in the studio flashlight. These women are still trying to keep up appearances, but the cracks are beginning to show. And looking hard at these enormous shots, substitutes for the old family portrait above the fireplace, you notice another abiding characteristic of Sherman’s art. No matter that they are photographs, her images never have the momentary status of the snapshot. They seem to stand outside time.” (Cumming, 2019)
Early Work (1975-77):
I was struck by the confidence in this work that was mainly created when Sherman was an art student at the State University College of Buffalo between 1972-6. Particular highlights for me are ‘Untitled #479’ (1975) which unusually for Sherman shows the process of transformation through 23 images which start a nerdy, bespectacled Sherman and end with her as heavily made up vamp. ‘Untitled A-E’ (1975) draws attention to the artifice of her transformations through the exaggerated use of make up and posing. “Air Shutter Release Fashions’ (1975) is a provocative series showing Sherman’s naked torso wrapped in her camera shutter release with the handwritten caption alluding to the item of clothing it is meant to represent. The exhibition notes make the following explanation:
“In photographing herself naked, [Sherman makes] her own body the work’s central focus; and by wrapping the cable of the camera release around her torso and limbs, she suggests various items of costume, albeit in outline only. As a result, the images reveal the way that Sherman depersonalises her own figure and invests it with artifice; at the same time, they expose the means by which this transformation is achieved.”
Cover Girls (1976):
This series comprises five manipulated ‘covers’ of the women’s magazines Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle. Each cover is presented in a group of three: the first shows the original, the second features Sherman’s face composited onto the original and made up to resemble the model, and the third shows Sherman retaining the impersonation but adopting a ‘goofy face’. The exhibition text makes this analysis of Sherman’s appropriation and how this is a comment on the imagery of the mass-media:
“By replicating a pre-existing image, her work quotes the style of the original; in the Vogue cover for example, Sherman draws attention to Jerry Hall’s make up, which she copies exactly. However, by parodying Hall’s expression, Sherman emphasises the artificial nature of the original image, which seeks to convey an impression of glamorous sophistication.”
Untitled Film Stills (1977-80):
For Paul Moorhouse, this series represents Sherman’s emergence as a mature artist and the performative aspect characterise the rest of her output. He continues:
“As the title of this celebrated early series suggests, the Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) evoke publicity shots for films. The protagonist is a solitary woman seen sometimes in close-up and at the centre of the action, at other times glimpsed from afar. Fictitious tableaux staged for the camera, such scenes seem familiar but are also tantalisingly ambiguous, inviting and at the same time defying explanation. These enigmatic works announced the arrival of a compelling artistic personality and yet, by presenting herself as an actress, Sherman simultaneously retreated behind the personae she created. The instinct to fabricate and occupy a world of appearances dominates the Untitled Film Stills, and during the succeeding four decades it has remained a central, motivating force.” (Moorhouse, 2019: 11)
Laura Cumming describes the effect of looking at the full 70 images from the series as deja vu as the characters seem so familiar, each one reminiscent of a film you think you have seen before but you know is constructed:
“The vamp, the victim, the ponytailed student, the black and white heroine startled by the telephone: is it Hitchcock, Hawks or Fellini?
You recognise the type, spot the cinematic allusion and then – crucially – realise that each scene is in fact a fiction that does not exist in memory. Sherman has made it all up. Made herself up, arranged the costumes, props and lighting that elaborate the atmosphere, imply the backstory, the forthcoming action and all. Every still is of – and by – Cindy Sherman.” (Cumming, 2019)
It was strange seeing the series in a gallery setting, these are works that I am very familiar with and have looked at many times before, but, they were in some way changed presented framed and behind glass on the wall. The first thing that struck me was how small the prints are, the fashion is towards giant prints and I enjoyed having to stand closer to the photographs than I am used to, or indeed needed to for the majority of the rest of the exhibition. The success of the series is their basis in cinema of the 1940s-60s, particularly film noir and Hitchcock. The characters are instantly recognisable without being cliches or derivative, Sherman is clearly identifiable and the constant through each but she is also completely different on each frame – it is an extraordinary set and worthy of the praise and influence heaped on it. I have had the experience of seeing other images that I know well in ‘the flesh’ and being decidedly underwhelmed or disappointed – I am glad to say that this was not the case on this occasion, in fact, quite the opposite as my admiration for the series was only increased.
Rear Screen Projections (1980):
These images follow the theme of the cinema started in ‘Untitled Film Stills’ but with the important distinction of being in colour. Sherman is shown in close-up in front of a projected back drop, a strategy that has the effect of strengthening the impression of ambiguity. The notes from the exhibition text make these points:
“Shown in close-up, there is a concentration on Sherman’s cosmetically altered features, in particular her gaze, which seems responsive to some unspecified situation. As a result, her acting has greater psychological depth, but any sense of realism is contradicted by the artificial-looking settings”
This series subverts the male gaze and the conventions of the centrefold by presenting a series of vulnerable looking women rather than sensuous female models typically found in men’s magazines. Sherman is quoted in the exhibition notes as intending the series to replace a “titillating image” with one that “might be intruding on someone’s private pain, sadness or reverie.” ‘Centrefolds’ was commissioned for Artforum magazine but never run, possibly because of the way the women depicted appear vulnerable or even victimised. Sherman’s motivations can perhaps be explained by the way she uses her experiences and anxieties of being a woman and channels her memories into her work. In an interview she explains her motivations for the series:
“[the images are] meant to resemble in format a centrefold, but in content I wanted a man opening up a magazine to look in expectation of something lascivious, and then feel like the violator they would be” (Saner, 2019)
Pink Robes (1981-2):
For this series Sherman makes a departure from her usual practice, appearing without make up, costumes or props and covered only by a pink bathrobe. The images are defiant and confrontational with Sherman staring straight into the camera in the imagined role of a nude model resting between shots.
Color Studies (1981-2):
These images are more subtle examples of Sherman evoking complex psychological mind-sets by suggesting ordinary women in understated, unremarkable settings. Despite the appearance of normality, and the lack of overt drama, the images are highly charged and suggestive exactly because of this.
These photographs are unusual departure for Sherman as they are an overtly critical comment on contemporary culture. Commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson, Sherman chose to parody fashion photography with the characters appearing neurotic and absurd despite wearing high end fashion clothing. From the exhibition notes Sherman explains her intentions: “I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful…I was trying to make fun of fashion.” There is an unresolved ironic tension in the fact that despite implying that the elegance, glamour and sophistication of high end fashion is merely a veneer and illusory, she continues to be commissioned to make fashion work – seemingly the cultural capital she brings to these projects outweighs the critical nature of the imagery.
Fairy Tales (1985):
These nightmarish and grotesque tableaux show a much darker view of modern society and find their sources in children’s fairy tales while bringing to mind the style of science fiction and horror films. The exhibition notes state:
“In some of these images Sherman appears as the victim of some dire event; in others, she appears sinister or threatening. Collectively, the series conveys an abject atmosphere that elides childhood fears with the visual language of adult media. Referring to the violent themes that since the 1970s have increasingly featured in cinema and television drama, these works invite questions about whether the media reflect or incites elements of depravity in the contemporary world. Sherman’s use of artifice distances her images from these media sources. Even so, the Fairy Tales hold up a mirror to the inescapable fact that such dark forces exist.”
History Portraits (1988-90):
These images take inspiration from the visual language of old master painting from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Rather than aiming to convince the audience about the illusions she has created, Sherman makes her transformations deliberately unconvincing through the use of visible prosthetics. This parody of historical portraiture raises questions about the presence of illusion in images of people.
Sex Pictures, Fashion, Surrealist Pictures (1992-96):
These series’ critique pornography and explicit depictions of sexuality. They are also notable due to the absence of Sherman herself – dolls, prosthetics and other props are used to create scenarios that appear absurd, abject and devoid of sensuality. The exhibition notes make this analysis:
“Deliberately artificial-looking, Sherman’s images debunk the conventions of pornography, and ridicule its visual language as a sham that conceals a striking emptiness.”
Masks, Head Shots, Clowns, Balenciaga (1994-2008):
These series’ are linked by the use of masks to completely transform Sherman’s facial features subverting the notion that a person’s facial appearance can be read for clues to their identity.
Society Portraits (2008):
The themes of this series are age and social status. Sherman creates imposing portraits of women confronting their advancing years through heavy use of make up and cosmetic surgery to create an illusion of youthfulness. Elaborate, digital backdrops convey a sense of affluence and refinement, however, this is contrasted with the insecurity suggested by the women’s haughty demeanour which betrays self-absorption and personal doubt.
For this series, Sherman dresses in Chanel outfits and places herself into a rugged, outdoor virtual landscape. The exhibtion notes state:
“Sherman’s delight in performance here finds an enhanced, virtual context in which the real and the apparent are merged and indistinguishable. In that respect, these works remain true to the ethos of ‘dressing up’ that Sherman formed as a child, while delving further into the mysteries of appearance that her art has always explored.”
These portraits are made on a large scale and placed directly on the gallery wall to resemble murals. Using digital technology, Sherman portrays unusual characters, wearing strange costumes in abstracted landscapes. The exhibition notes make this assessment:
“The effect is to monumentalise Sherman’s fabrication of artificial appearances, expanding a theme present on her work from the outset. Confronting these imposing images, the viewer is drawn more fully into a fictional world.”
For this series, Sherman created characters based on a generation of young women who emerged after the first world war. Described as ‘Flappers’, they flouted convention with their appearance and conveyed a liberated sensuality that contrasted earlier norms of femininity. The characters in the series are obviously now older women and there is a rich narrative potential for the viewer to unpick their stories. The exhibition notes suggest the women could be Hollywood ‘grand dames’ – fading stars of the entertainment industry, a theme which would fit with Sherman’s reference to film and actresses in earlier works.
Harper’s Bazaar (2016-18)
These images, commissioned by the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, show Sherman wearing designer clothes in front of digitally created backgrounds which create a narrative based on the phenomenon of ‘street-style stars’ – characters who attend fashion shows wearing ostentatious dress and exhibit exaggerated behaviour that seeks to rival the main spectacle for attention.
Rarely have I seen an exhibition so expansive in its scope, not a ‘greatest hits’ selection but a full and thorough retrospective. I came away feeling enriched by the experience of seeing ‘Untitled Film Stills’ in a gallery setting and learning more, a great deal more, about the rest of Sherman’s work and practice. It is unbelievable that Sherman has managed to stick to the same working method and artistic strategy, and yet, refine and develop this through her many series’ of work over the past 40 years. It is the ambiguity of each image and the way the viewer brings their own personal perspective and understanding to unravel the potential narratives within the frame that for me makes them so successful. As a final comment, here is Paul Moorhouse’s assessment:
“Sherman’s work is defined by its complex marriage of precision with indeterminacy. Each image involves the viewer directly by compelling them to seek a rationale for their responses to depicted individuals and situation whose significance seems highly particular yet entirely unspecified. While her photographs may be, as she says ‘not about anything’, that does not mean they lack significance. On the contrary, although their messages may not be pre-determined, the individual interpretations brought to them by each viewer in a predicament that mirrors life. In Sherman’s photographs, and also in daily existence, we must constantly negotiate our relationships with people and situations, scrutinising their appearance and, no doubt without any guarantee of veracity, attaching significance. Sherman’s art forms a context and a focus for all too human dilemma.” (Moorhouse, 2019: 17)
Arena: Cindy Sherman #Untitled. (2019) BBC Four. 28th July 2019, 21.05.
The work of Jim Mortram, and his long term documentary project ‘Small Town Inertia’ is something that I have been inspired by for some time and I was thrilled that the Side Gallery would be showing the work. For seven years Mortram collaborated with members of his community in the small market town of Dereham in Norfolk, producing a body of work that is simultaneously uplifting and empowering while raging against the injustices of a society that has become fractured and marginalised through government austerity measures. This is work that has the double aim of providing agency and a voice to the people in the images while having a direct political edge which angrily demands social justice. The subjects covered are difficult – disability, substance abuse, self harm and mental illness, and yet, there is also strength, resilience, dignity and hope present in each photograph.
An important consideration about the work is that Mortram is most definitely a part of this world and not an outsider who visits to make photographs before disappearing – in my view this understanding and empathy he has for the people he photographs is evident and is what separates it from other work in the documentary tradition. He describes photography as having saved his life – giving him a creative outlet and enabling him to make connections. Mortram is a full time carer for his mother who suffers from severe epilepsy, and in the opening talk for the exhibition, he movingly recounts a period of his life where he was so alienated and depressed due to the emotional and financial burdens he faced that he did not speak for a year. He was given a camera by a friend and encouraged to go out and take photographs, the use of black and white was a practical, rather than aesthetic choice as the old monitor he bought could not display colour accurately. Slowly, he began to take photographs of people he came into contact with in his community, and perhaps most importantly, record their testimony – the use of text in ‘Small Town Inertia’ is significant in both being able to understand the work and to give the people in the photographs a voice and the ability to tell their stories and share their personal experiences. In an interview with BJP, Mortram says this about the aims and intentions of ‘Small Town Inertia’:
“The majority of people I deal with feel they don’t have a voice; listening, helping share those unheard voices, serves to amplify them, to take them from their isolation into the world. If they are about one thing, my pictures are about the endurance some people need just to survive today… The most important thing is telling their story… I’ve always felt it a duty to be that conduit, that link in a chain to take voices and amplify them in the hope of them being heard.” (Hamilton, 2018: 49)
Lewis Bush describes what separates Mortram from other ‘socially concerned’ documentary photographers whose work can be patronising and paternalistic:
“While many documentary photographers ‘study down’ to use Laura Nader’s term, Mortram looks to people he shares something of a common experience with. Working with great patience and sometimes not photographing for months or years while he establishes relationships, the protagonists of Mortram’s stories are in many cases more his fiends than his photographic subjects. In the process of forming these connections Mortram has a knack for uncovering the enormous potential and individuality in people, something the state seems so often to miss entirely.” (Mortram, 2017: 6)
Ultimately I find this body of work, and Mortram himself, immensely inspiring. On the surface these are images that are in the documentary tradition and language of black and white photojournalism, but this is purely a superficial impression. Looking at the images it quickly becomes apparent that they are made from a defiantly subjective viewpoint which seeks to allow the viewer to understand and empathise with people whose lives are likely to be completely alien to them. Each photograph stands alone and many show they are posed rather than captured in a candid fashion, but, Mortram does not subscribe to the notion of the decisive moment – the work is meant to be seen as a series and viewing this way enables the viewer a brief insight into the lives of the people in the photographs. The ability of Mortram to grow the project and audience outside of traditional methods is also significant – Small Town Inertia originated as a website promoted through social media and the photobook was crowdfunded. Subsequent projects are self funded through print sales which means Mortram can continue to produce work that is true to his personal voice, intentions and without interference. The drive for Mortram to create these stories is inspiring and I anticipate what he will make next.