As you walk into Stills gallery, the white walls and natural light offer a minimalistic ambience that one would never normally associate with the loud and often gaudy works of Cindy Sherman. The intimate photography exhibition, however, hosts a selection of some of Sherman’s earliest work and boasts pieces such as Untitled (Murder Mystery People), Dolls Clothes (a short film made in 1975) and selections from arguably one of her most iconic series, Untitled Film Stills. The various artworks, all of which helped catapult her into the artist’s spotlight, demonstrate a range of Sherman’s signature personas, these being what ultimately drew her into the “Pictures” generation (a group known for their criticism of American media). Although her earlier works are not as obviously farcical as her later ones, they present the beginning of a developing artist’s career and show her starting point, helping to contextualise her more obtrusive and louder pieces that came as her style developed.
This exhibition is concurrent with a major retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition that offered more of Sherman’s work and was larger in scale. Sherman, however, would feel more comfortable with her work being displayed at Stills as she famously holds a deep distaste for the luxury and wealth that comes with success in the art world. Following the sale of one of her Centrefolds pieces at the price of $3.89m, Sherman created the Sex Pictures series – perhaps her most controversial collection – showing that Sherman’s reactionary works not only express her disdain for the extreme wealth that can come with popularity, but criticise her own success as well. Since the debut of her more scandalising pieces, Sherman’s work has mellowed, drawing her back to her original aesthetic and looking more towards some of the projects that are on display at Stills. This perhaps shows the maturity of an artist who has reached a more pragmatic attitude to her field and an evolved view of what it means to be successful.
Yet, what is clear from all of Sherman’s pieces is that not only are they “Intentionally tasteless”, but they are all reactions to American media culture. This is what the exhibition at Stills helps people to realise – that Sherman’s personas and prosthetics are all exposes of the artifice in media culture, explorations of the media’s role in sugar-coating normal, everyday life.
Ultimately, Stills’ exhibition allows for attendees to explore and witness the beginning of Sherman’s career as a photographer and creator of those diverse characters that have consequently allowed her to explore relevant political and social ideas in her artistic career.
Image: Polly Burnay