The National Portrait Gallery’s major retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s work includes around 150 pieces from this master of disguise, which explore and unpick vehicles of popular culture including film, fashion and advertising. It is incredibly timely in an era of fake news and misinformation – where artifice pervades and women are still pitted against draconian beauty standards – to see work which interrogate the façades that have become commonplace in our society. This exhibition is unsettling, at times laugh-out-loud funny and utterly unforgettable.
Opening with her fashion photographs, which ‘mock the self-regard associated with haute couture’, we are immediately plunged into Sherman’s lurid world. Her heavily stylised, dramatic and affected bright characters leer out of blurred and sometimes psychedelic backgrounds, and at a glance look almost three-dimensional. The watery-eyed subjects of ‘Society Portraits’ are examined through a lens of social status, ageing and wealth while ‘Sex Pictures’ examines the dehumanisation of the subjects of pornography.
From cover girls to flappers to women in film, and from the small, black and white ‘Untitled Film Stills’ series to large wall murals, the scope of the show is incredible, and it is staggering that these are manipulations of Sherman herself. There is something so radical about making yourself the subject of your art as a woman, especially when your art can be seen as a damning criticism of the male gaze and the objectification of women across all forms of media.
The exhibition stretches to incorporate work from the 1970s to the present day but seems ageless, and at every stage the artist has been ahead of her time: there is the sense that she was mocking internet culture before internet culture had even happened. At a time when digital manipulation of our appearance through apps like FaceApp is routine, her portraiture couldn’t be more prescient: Sherman’s Instagram account is also brilliant, and worth exploring if you’re a fan of her work.
One of my highlights of the show was ‘A Cindy Book’, a tiny private album played on a video screen in which the artist has pasted pictures of herself and family and friends, circled herself in green marker and written, under every single one, ‘that’s me’, ‘that’s me’, ‘that’s me’. Even in secret, Sherman is performative, tongue-in-cheek and hilariously subversive. Whether you are a lifelong fan or entirely new to the work of Cindy Sherman, this show is unmissable.
Track down Cindy Sherman until 15 September 2019.