A Fascinating Female Freakshow

The photography of Cindy Sherman communicates some of the deep, dark, conflicting and sometimes twisted messages imposed on and embraced by women. I recently viewed her work on exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and found myself emotionally contemplating my own struggle of becoming and maintaining personal authenticity.

Venturing out of my hotel room, alone, in an unfamiliar city, I phone mapped the directions for SFMOMA. I miraculously found it after walking a few miles and taking more than one mis-turn. After trying several doors, I read the sign above the ticket counter, closed on Wednesday. I decided to come back the next day when I saw that the featured artist was Cindy Sherman,

I remembered my son raving about Sherman’s images after his visit to MOMA, New York. I took a shot of the promotional banner and texted him my good news. He quickly phoned saying that he was anxious for me to “experience” the exhibit and suggested I spring for the headphones.

The following day, I re-traced my steps, arrived at 9:00, and found that the museum didn’t open until 11:00. I stayed close, ate, shopped, stalled and took my place in the front of the line way before 11 o’clock. Finally, the doors opened and I quickly purchased my ticket and my headphones. I bolted up the stairs to the rooms with the Sherman’s and fell down her rabbit hole into a strange world, vaguely familiar yet, creepy and odd. Huge portraits of women towered over me, hints of people I have known. Friends and acquaintances, family and strangers, movie-stars and models, dreams and nightmares.

There were women in designer clothes, looking haggard, bruised and unhappy. Social climbers with the signature accouterments, smiling weirdly. Aging women dressed in the clothes of their youth, sad yet endearing. And vibrant, freakish clowns. The powerful pull of exaggeration coupled with subtle hidden messages captivated me. An example is a portrait of a woman donning a rich green gown and revealing a leg decked out in support hose through the gown’s slit.

Sherman doesn’t back away from the grotesque as she mocks societal pressure and its inherent stereotypes while violently exposing our obsession with fashion, glamor, image, and youth. Ultra tight face-lifts, bulbous lips, and botched boob jobs still look ridiculous, clownish, and freakish, even in couture.

In her collection, all the women are the same woman; herself. The model is also the photographer, the make-up artist, fashion co-ordinator, set designer and overall creative genius. Each complete female composition seems to accentuate the endless, hopeless quest to be that perfect woman.

It is obvious even to the untrained eye that every minute detail has been carefully thought out and selected, allowing the observer to emotionally connect with the woman behind the portrait. Each untitled work speaks for itself and of itself, begging the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?”

It surprised me to find myself strangely liberated after experiencing the Sherman exhibit. Though I have inadvertently fallen victim to the pressures and traps of what marketers, movie stars, icons and others consider beautiful, I have not come close to the hauntingly absurd women in Sherman’s photographs. Could this be her point or her warning?


In response to the Daily Post Challenge for this week to try something different, I decided to spin my blogging wheels in a completely new direction. The beauty of blogging is self discovery and I am grateful for the opportunity to be an art critic for a day. The effort to describe my impressions of this powerful exhibit crystallized and captured the experience for me. This was an enlightening exercise.


12 thoughts on “A Fascinating Female Freakshow

  1. Pingback: Behold the GIF | play-grand

  2. This is a riveting post. Your interaction with the artist (that’s really what ultimately it is) and both of you facing the challenge: what is it to be a woman? Who am I?
    I’ve long been ambivalent about Sherman’s work, but I’ve slowly come round to seeing it as profoundly philosophical and ultimately very important. Thanks so much for this thoughtful review.

    1. I had to get past the initial creepiness of her photography and allow myself to imagine just what she was trying to communicate. I am so glad that you understand the intent of my post and the emotion it evoked. Thank you, Judith

  3. Hi- I’m new to your blog- but had to comment on your review of the Cindy Sherman exhibition. I’ve found her work weirdly fascinating ever since I discovered her about a year ago. I thought your comments were insightful- and I loved seeing some of Sherman’s portraits I’d not seen before.

  4. Good observations, Gwen! I’ve noticed Cindy Sherman from a distance for lots of years and often felt her work was a bit contrived — but seeing the show at MOMA really brought her career and directions together for me. (And it was interesting to find out she does her own costuming and makeup for the self-portraits…)

  5. So intriguing. And weird. You hit it on the head with this: “The powerful pull of exaggeration coupled with subtle hidden messages captivated me.” Some not all that subtle, either. Very interesting post, Gwen. I’ll be thinking of Cindy Sherman for quite some time.

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