Friday, 28 January 2011


Courtesy the artist, Spruth Magers Berlin London and Metro Pictures

On the way to my computer I pick up the post. From inside an envelope, someone enquires in large  pale olive print ‘Lines and wrinkles getting you down? (Try) age–erasing eye cream with mimosa’. Things do get me down from time to time: the weather, sarcasm directed at children, the death of a close friend. But ‘crepiness on eyelids’ is not a priority. ‘Crepiness’ is not even a word in my huge Oxford Dictionary, but I know why they’ve used it. It looks so like creepiness, and we don’t want that, do we?

Pigment print on Phototex adhesive fabric.Photographer
© Stephen White

Thank God for Cindy Sharman. The murals on the walls of Spruth Magers Grafton Street Gallery are an antidote to such absurdity. They release her from the confines of a picture frame where I've usually seen her in galleries,  and display her in a romantic forest (New York’s Central Park, actually), which looks as though it’s crying out for damsels, knights, ogres and dragons. Instead it's got Cindy in among all that black greenery, standing four square and twice as large as life: on other walls she's a woman in a long gown or with a bunch of spring onions or in a blue flouncy dress, a feathery cape and clumpy shoes.

Here she’s a stocky woman without a waist. Thank God none of us look like that...where her waist should be is a baggy tunic of shiny red fabric. Her wrinkled saggy tights are an unhealthy flesh colour. And there are little bits of black braid strung across her like tinsel on a Christmas tree, highlighting just those bits of her which are least appealing.  But is there a twinge of recognition? We also play different parts. We too are not in control of other people’s reading of us. Is it ourselves we see?

Sherman is playing with the idea of portraiture in general, self-portraiture in particular. We all use pictures of ourselves: on passports and identity tags to convince people that we are who we are; and in our albums which document and display our lives, our travels, family and friends. We focus on the person in the picture and ask ‘Is it a likeness?’ or ‘ What does the background say?’ or ‘ What sort of a person are we looking at?’

But Sherman won’t have that.  Her work shifts the focus away from the subject and onto you and me, the viewers. How do we react? We know that what we see is a self- fabricated fiction and that Sherman can turn herself into hundreds of ‘characters’. Her poise and pose are uncanny. I think I can see fleeting references to classical portraiture in the way the head is tilted, the gaze held. But there’s no wink at the viewer, no open irony, no irritating ‘knowingness’. What you see is what you get.

Back to that ‘age-erasing’ eye cream. Although Sherman questions ideas about femininity, she insists she’s not a feminist. (As far as I know she was not one of the American Guerilla Girls in the 1980s who appeared in gorilla costumes and posted slogans like ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?  Less than 5% of the artists are women but 85% of the nudes are female’). But her work is controversial and at its best asks challenging questions about the role of women in general, and our air-brushed sisters in the media in particular.

So what’s the sensible response to a cream which claims to erase age? As far as I can see the only thing that erases age is death, which is not on my shopping list.

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