There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
~ T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. ~ Nietzsche
Cindy Sherman’s “Imitation of Life” is one of the most enjoyable exhibitions I have ever experienced. If Hamlet held the mirror up to nature, then for the last 40 years Cindy Sherman has been holding the mirror up to artifice.
All of the images are iconic, iconoclastic, and uniquely familiar. We recognize them and yet we have never seen them before. They are archetypes in our collective subconscious.
There are simulacra of centerfolds, screen sirens, housewives, socialites, businesswomen… all of which provoke us to contemplate our own facades. These photos confront us with our own personas, the possibility that we ourselves are clichés, stereotypes.
And thus we must laugh to compress the ambiguity of these Platonic forms. Is Ms. Sherman mocking facades or treating them lovingly? Light is both a particle AND a wave and yet the human brain can only think in either/or.
Which is why this exhibit is so darn enjoyable – because it allows us to see our own fallibilities, our own incongruencies.
For example, upon seeing the above photograph, Jamie Lee Curtis said, “I recognized every woman I knew in that one picture. It really to me represented what Hollywood is. It’s all platinum, shoulder pads, and clenched fists. It’s all about the juxtaposition of the frustration and the glamour and the hidden anger.”
Curator Philipp Kaiser writes, “The imitation of cinema and the imitation of life blur beyond recognition. Sherman’s decision to title her exhibition ‘Imitation of Life’ moves toward enabling a distinct and specific perspective on her work, first in the title’s referring to Douglas Sirk’s well-known melodrama about a young girl’s identity crisis, and second because the concept of imitation seems essential to Sherman’s artistic practice.”
For me, however, I found the title of the exhibit – “Imitation of Life” – to be slightly too ironic. Slightly less ironic titles would include “Verisimilitudes of Facades” or regarding the several series on cinema “Archetypes of Americana.”
Often leaving touches of make-up and artifice visible, Ms. Sherman’s poignant auto-portraits continuously engage viewers with both pathos and folly.
I like the way Elizabeth Gilbert described the paradox of the creative process in her book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” and feel that it could portray what Cindy Sherman has been wrestling with for the past four decades: “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true…”
We are very fortunate to live in a society that allows for geniuses like Cindy Sherman to explore us from the outside in as well as the inside out. A vivisection of the American spirit, if you will.
At The Broad Museum in Los Angeles until October 2nd. Don’t miss it!