Cindy Sherman has her way with Old Masters at SF Moma

If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at entering yet another museum gallery full of Carvaggios or Della Francescas, bare-breasted Madonnas gazing lovingly at their chubby, man-faced babies; or any bare-breasted women gazing at any baby; or seen one too many portraits of important looking old men with bald heads and big noses, the Cindy Sherman show at the SF Moma is for you. When I walked into the room of her Old Master parodies, featuring stiff poses, prosthetic breasts, giant noses, and garish bald caps, Sherman in all of them, I felt like getting on my knees and giving thanks. It was like she was saying, “Fuck you, Old Masters. You’re all the same. How do you think women feel when they’re stuck in gallery after gallery of the same old thing? You know what it looks like to us? Check this out.”

Sherman doesn’t only mock Old Masters. If you’ve ever been grossed out looking at a portrait of a possy of TV housewives in Us Weekly, if you’ve ever thought those women looked more alien than human, you will love Sherman’s art. With garish make-up and enormously scaled photographs, Sherman shows the grotesque in images we find normal, or are supposed to find normal. Or fun. Or cute. Or titillating. The way the show text describes the themes is that Sherman uses “images embedded in our imagination.” I love that description because that is also what Reel Girl is all about. A lot of what I find seriously creepy, Sherman does as well, and it’s all in this show: clowns, society women, hardcore porn, fairy tales and aging movie stars. (Now, if I could just get her take on My Little Pony and Polly Pocket.)

What is so great about this exhibition is that Sherman is in all of her own photos. She is subject and object. By taking on both of these roles, she shows how fucked up it is that women exist in a world that is so male dominated that we actually experience ourselves through male eyes and male narratives. As John Berger wrote: Men watch. Women watch themselves being watched. I’ve read about that idea, thought about that idea, written about it, but I’ve never seen it presented so brilliantly as in this show.

One thing that is kind of a bummer: everything is grotesque and ugly. By the time I was through the rooms, I was desperate for some beauty. I started to wonder what Sherman found beautiful, if anything. Of course, she must see beauty. This show was not the place where she wanted to present that particular aspect of existence. Maybe her art isn’t focused on showing beauty at all. Which is fine, of course, she’s the artist, but I found myself hopeful to see a show where she was doing more acting and less reacting.

Reel Girl rates Cindy Sherman retrospective ***HHH***