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Cindy Sherman: an interview with curator Aaron Lister

We discussed with exhibition curator Aaron Lister the importance of Sherman's work, and what makes this exhibition extra special.

12 February 2017

American photography icon Cindy Sherman’s work is currently on display at City Gallery Wellington. The exhibition collates works by Sherman from the time that she returned to photographing herself after a decade of removing herself from her imagery. We discussed with exhibition curator Aaron Lister the importance of Sherman’s work, and what makes this exhibition extra special.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #461 2007-08/ Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist

D-Photo: How exciting is it to have Cindy Sherman’s work here in New Zealand? This must be something incredibly unique for New Zealand — is that correct?

Aaron Lister: It’s a really significant, important show. It’s not just that we are showing some Cindy Sherman photographs, which any New Zealand gallery would be ecstatic about, we have a large, comprehensive exhibition that draws from all of her bodies of work since 2000. It’s a carefully crafted and considered exhibition that brings the work of a significant artist here, but also goes beyond the ‘greatest hits’ to provide a real sense of the moves she has made over the last 17 years. It’s a rich and generous show that appeals both to those familiar and unfamiliar with her work. It’s a grand statement about the relationship between art and the worlds we inhabit physically and psychologically.

There hasn’t been an exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s work in New Zealand since late 1989 at the National Art Gallery. Looking back, it was remarkable that the National Art Gallery would present a show of Sherman’s work at that time while it was still in its relatively formative stages. In a way, our show is a second part of that show. None of the work in that show has returned, this is an exhibition of Sherman’s work since 2000, and her work has changed considerably while still exploring similar issues.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #424  2004 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist ‘Clowns’

Can you explain a little bit about how the exhibition will be presented throughout the gallery?

The exhibition takes the year 2000 as its starting point. This is when Sherman returned to using herself as the model in her own photographs in the creation of character studies. For the previous decade or so, she had removed herself from the image — but in 2000 was compelled to return — it’s a clear line demarcating her practice.

So the exhibition starts with the Headshots of 2000, the series that marks this return. Her subsequent bodies of work then unfold throughout the exhibition: the polarizing Clowns, Society Portraits, and collaborations with fashion houses Chanel and Balenciaga. In many ways the exhibition offers a number of mini shows of each of these series. Each has its own gallery space, and allows the viewer to approach it as a specific, and almost autonomous, body of work, but then see how it fits within the larger whole.

In many ways the exhibition leads to the new work — both a new series featuring aging film stars and a site-specific mural that’s built specifically for our architecture and wraps around a large curved wall. It’s about as close to installation as photography can get. It definitely pushes what photography can be or do in a gallery setting.

What is it about Cindy’s work, do you think, that has made her work so iconic and influential?

Her work has always pressed, or even anticipated, many of the key cultural questions or concerns of its moment. In many ways, it’s about culture and it’s always kept up with, and led, key cultural discussions. This is largely due to the ways her work draws from, and intervenes within, popular cultural forms such as film, television, and fashion. She’s always been with us, but also working against us, encouraging us to question the assumptions and values that get thrown at us by culture.

A good example of this relationship to culture is the way that Sherman is often talked about as a precursor of the Instagram and ‘selfie generation’. She’s always photographing herself, she’s front and centre of her work. Yet, she is incredibly resistant to, and disparaging of, social media — she’s described it as grotesque. So rather than foreshadowing this cultural shift, her work stands in a critical relationship to it. Her work always sits on the knife edge of being critical or complicit. Is it cruel or empathetic?  She’s always reflecting back on and complicating how culture and identity works.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #463 2007-08 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist

Cindy puts on many hats when it comes to the creation of her work — stylist, model, etc. What do you think this adds to her images and her process, and her as an artist?

Sherman works in a way that, for her, is necessary in the creation of her work. She always works alone, she has tried directing models but always found the results unsatisfactory so settled on always using herself. But when we say that, we talk about her as a photographer, but that approach makes total sense if you think of her work as body-based performance. One of the elements this process brings is that sense of play that is so strong in her work, which connects back to one of those famous origin stories for her work — that it comes out of playing dress-ups as a child. Her process demonstrates a real commitment to the act of transforming and recreating the self endlessly over decades.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #465 2008 / Image courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artist. Series: Society Portraits

The exhibition features a whole new series that hasn’t really been seen anywhere before. Can you tell us a little bit about that series?

Yes. There has been a lot of excitement, as there always is, around a new body of work Sherman has been working away on. She released this new — and so new its still untitled — series just as this exhibition was being put together, so it was able to be included. It’s clearly an important body of work offering new twists both in terms of subject matter and process. We see Sherman as imagined stars from Weimar cinema or Old Hollywood standing in front of digitally manipulated backdrops, echoing the use of painted glass backdrops in the making and promotion of film at that time. The images are printed directly onto metal, almost like the tintype process, which creates a whole new set of other-worldly filmic associations.

Cindy Sherman / Untitled #398 2000/ Image courtesy:
The artist and Metro Pictures, New York / © The artistSeries: Head Shots

In the exhibition there are Cindy Sherman’s set of scrapbooks, found photographs, collections. Can you tell us a little bit more about this complementary exhibition?

I’m fascinated by the way Sherman draws on a variety of cultural sources in the creation of her own fictions. So after discovering that she is a collector of vernacular photography and found photographs, we decided to put together an exhibition featuring this material to sit alongside the larger show. We have 13 albums from Sherman’s collection of found photography on display. This reveals her interest in how photography works, the ways we use photography to present ourselves, to present our family, present the world we live in. To bring her made and found photographs opens up other ways of thinking through her practice.

The star of that show is undoubtedly a collection of over 200 photographs from Casa Susanna, a cross-dressing retreat in Hunter, New York, which ran from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. It’s a safe space where a community of cross-dressing men could freely go enfemme for a weekend, and use photography as a way to confirm and share these identities. These performances of femininity to camera has clear echoes to Sherman’s own work, again complicating the reading of both sets of photographs.

This is the first time this connection between Sherman’s made and found photographs has been so explicitly staged in an exhibition. It was really generous of Sherman to allow such a presentation, and it’s one of the really animating features of this exhibition.

Cindy Sherman is on until March 19 at City Gallery Wellington.