For more than 30 years, photographer Cindy Sherman has used herself — and only herself — as the subject of her portraits. Yet in every picture she looks like someone else.
Working as her own stylist, makeup artist and costume designer, Sherman is a master of disguises. Her characters are so eerily real that you have the feeling you’ve met them before. Whether you want to meet them again is another question.
“Cindy Sherman,” now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, includes more than 150 photographs by Sherman, considered one of the most influential contemporary artists. The traveling exhibition is the first major U.S. retrospective of her work in nearly 15 years.
Eva Respini, associate curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says it would be a mistake to consider Sherman’s photographs self-portraits.
“They’re really about the artifice of identity — the project of multiple identities,” says Respini, who organized the show. “She just happened to be her own model, mostly because it was easy.”
The show traces Sherman’s work from the 1970s to the present. Included is her seminal work, “Untitled Film Stills,” 70 black-and-white photographs that evoke the stereotypical female roles in 1950s and 1960s films. They are fake publicity shots of imaginary films, with familiar images such as the bored housewife and the girl on the run.
The exhibition also includes Sherman’s 12 centerfolds; in “Untitled #96” she’s a young girl in an orange sweater lying on the floor, clutching a lonely hearts ad. At the entrance to the exhibition is her recently created mural, in which she has used Photoshop to alter and exaggerate her features, creating several larger-than-life women.
Sherman does not give any of her photographs a title, and her work is both fascinating and disturbing. Her sex pictures (1992), using doll parts as props, are shocking and unsettling, both because of the subject matter and size. They’re in a room some viewers may rush through, although a photograph of Sherman as four creepy clowns is just around the corner.
Some of her strongest work is at the end of the exhibition. Sympathetically done, they clearly express the challenges women face as they age. In “Untitled #466,” Sherman portrays a woman wearing a shimmering turquoise caftan and pink plastic slippers, regally posed.
“Sherman’s work is particularly relevant to today’s image-saturated culture because she reminds us to be critical consumers of what we see,” says Erin O’Toole, SFMOMA’s assistant curator of photography. “She holds a mirror up to contemporary society, calling attention to the strangeness of things we tend to see as normal like fashion, makeup and plastic surgery.”
IF YOU GO
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and open until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; show closes Oct. 8
Admission: $11 to $18, free for children 12 and under
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org
Note: A film series featuring nine selections by Sherman runs today through Aug. 30 at the museum.