Cindy Sherman: Exploring Identity through Layered Portraiture

Cindy Sherman: Exploring Identity through Layered Portraiture

Cindy Sherman is an expert at dissecting her own identity. Over a span of forty years, the artist has undergone numerous shifts and alterations, employing her own physicality as a symbol for society's fragmented identities. Her expertise in this area is so profound that many might fail to discern the 'authentic' Cindy Sherman, seeing only her abundant, fascinating alter egos.

Sherman's approach to identity resonates with contemporary theories of performativity, such as those proposed by philosopher Judith Butler, who argues that our identities are not inherent but are created through repeated actions and behavior. In Sherman's work, one can see this when she pretends to be many different characters in her pictures.

Now Cindy Sherman will debut her latest body of work in June at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, Limmatstrasse. Coinciding with the Zurich Art Weekend 2023, this exhibition showcases Sherman's innovative approach to constructing identities through collaging her own face, utilizing digital manipulation to accentuate the layered aspects and plasticity of the self. The event will accompany a comprehensive catalog published by Hauser & Wirth Publishers, cementing Sherman's artistic vision. Furthermore, the exhibition aligns with two concurrent museum shows: 'Cindy Sherman – Tapestries' at ARoS Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark and 'Cindy Sherman: Anti-Fashion' at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in Germany.

For over four decades, Cindy Sherman's groundbreaking photographs have critically examined themes revolving around representation and identity in contemporary media. Since the early 2000s, Sherman has employed digital manipulation to construct personae that capture the fractured sense of self prevalent in modern society—a concern she has consistently explored throughout her career. As Gabriele Schor, a critic and curator, astutely notes, "Sherman's complex analysis of her face and her subtle employment of expression indicates that the working method of making up and costuming the self enables two processes: an intuitive and fluid process motivated by curiosity, and an intended process whose stimulus is conceptual and which has a 'subject matter.'"

Sherman has stripped away scenic backdrops and mise-en-scène in this new series of works, focusing solely on the face. She creates a collection of unsettling characters through a digital collaging technique that incorporates black and white and color photographs, along with traditional modes of transformation like make-up, wigs, and costumes. These characters laugh, twist, squint, and grimace in front of the camera. To construct these fragmented identities, Sherman photographs isolated parts of her body—eyes, nose, lips, skin, hair, and ears—cutting, pasting, and stretching them onto a foundational image. 

Through this process, she deconstructs and reconstructs new faces, revealing the complex layers of identity. Assuming the dual roles of both photographer and model, Sherman disrupts the typical dynamic between artist and subject. In these portraits, the sitter does not technically exist; they are composites of the artist's face. Nevertheless, the images exude a classical portraiture quality, and despite the layers and alterations, they still provide a genuine impression of the 'sitter.' 

With tightly cropped frames featuring hair, stretched-out faces, or swathes of material, Sherman's construction of characters disrupts the voyeur-gaze and subject-object binaries typically associated with traditional portraiture. In pieces like 'Untitled #661' (2023), even subtle changes, such as the positioning of a towel or the manipulation of facial features, drastically transform the demeanor and representation of the imagined 'sitter.'

This manipulation and warping of the face parallel Sherman's earlier use of prosthetics in works like the History Portraits series (1988) and the Masks series from the 1990s. These earlier explorations delved into the grotesque and abject aspects of humanity. Just as costumes, wigs, and makeup were often deliberately left exposed to break the illusion, the application of digital manipulation in Sherman's new series amplifies the tension between identity and artifice.
The tension is further heightened in works like 'Untitled #631' (2010/2023) and 'Untitled #652' (2023), where Sherman combines black and white and colored fragments. This deliberate combination highlights the presence of the artist's hand.

The exhibition will be on display from: 9 Jun – 16 Sep 2023 at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, Limmatstrasse, Opening hours: Tue – Fri, 11 am – 6pm Sat, 11 am – 5 pm

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