One Woman Plays Many Parts

This ongoing series explores artists at work. Each essay is succinct, introductory, and captures art in motion before labels are applied. NEW YORK artist Cindy Sherman builds her career on playing the starring role in other people's pictures. Her most recent work consists of color photographs in which she appears as the model for Old Master paintings.

In this series of photographs, Sherman impersonates both men and women. Not only can she be a madonna or a courtesan, she can also be a bald man, perhaps a monk, or the wine god Bacchus.

In many pictures, Sherman offers a straight-faced imitation of Old Master paintings. There are feminist overtones here because finally we have a woman deciding what the subject will be, a woman who determines what is grotesque and artificial. She pokes fun at the great European masters' unchallenged perceptions of beauty.

Yet, Sherman doesn't hesitate to derail our expectations. A richly dressed woman, who would be painted flawlessly in a commissioned portrait, appears in Sherman's photograph with a long, ugly nose disfigured by warts. A woman of the Italian Renaissance surprises us with her big belly, as if she escaped from a realistic portrait by Rembrandt.

At second glance, the imperfections turn out to be as artificial as the perfection we expect from art. Sherman's long, warty nose is obviously made of plastic, and the expanse of aging skin we see in some portraits is also plastic.

Sherman's photographs remind us that realism in art is as conventional as idealized beauty. If we see blemishes, we think we are being shown the truth, but since the withered hags as well as the radiant madonnas are all Cindy Sherman, it would seem that every pictorial convention threatens to deceive us.

There is obvious falsehood in these pictures, and we may ask ourselves if there is something false about pictures in general. Truth and falsehood are not the only issues, however; Sherman also plays with the fears so many people have about how they look.

Sherman's imitations of Old Master paintings are humorous, but also poignant. Rational and modern as we all are, men still desire to be handsome and women to be beautiful. Thoughts of health as well as vanity lead us to feel insecure about our bodies; to be pictured can be frightening.

Having our picture taken raises the question of how well we compare with the prevailing standard of beauty. As an artist, Cindy Sherman sets herself the task of fitting herself into pictorial conventions. Sometimes she fits fairly neatly; at other times the fit is awkward or even ludicrous.

In previous artistic incarnations, Sherman presented herself in a series of black-and-white photographs that resembled scenes from old B movies. The face was Sherman's, but the heroines and victims she portrayed were creatures of Hollywood convention.

More recently, Sherman has photographed herself in color and in increasingly large scale. For a while she was a pinup girl or a high-fashion model. Later she played the principal characters in fairy tales.

In a series inspired by horror and disaster movies, she used dolls or life-sized dummies to represent women who had died by violence. But with that exception she has always appeared in person. Taken as a whole, her work suggests that a woman plays many parts, few of them invented by herself.

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