As some of you know, Cindy Sherman is one of my favorite artists. Because today is her birthday, I’d like to share a piece I wrote about her, originally published on Satsumabug.
Happy birthday, Cindy Sherman!
Once I was young and anything was possible. Anything. I might have become a photographer or a psychologist or a bag lady or an alcoholic or a Parisian or a trapeze artist or an old maid or a paraplegic or a man. The world was my oyster.
As anyone who has survived that period of magical thinking that attends the teens and twenties knows, that kind of leeway can be simultaneously liberating and debilitating. Have you ever tried to open an oyster? How about changing your mind and putting it back in its shell? If I could wish for anything back then it would have been a glimpse into the future, because I had no idea what to be.
So for awhile, I did nothing and for another while, I dabbled. I worked random jobs, wore crazy costumes, and flirted with wide variety of people. I took classes in figure painting and toyed with the idea of minoring in art. One day in an Art History lecture inside a darkened theater, the slide machine advanced and the screen was abruptly filled with a photograph unlike anything I’d seen, a photo of a girl (blonde, but not unlike me) waiting on the side of the road (metaphorically like me). Immediately, this image struck me like a mallet strikes a gong—-the impact of her suitcase, pony tail, hands clasped behind her back, and the future speeding invisibly, inexorably towards her, I saw it all as if it were a frozen frame from a full-length film, a bit of universal narrative in black and white.
Aha, I thought, That’s it! That’s exactly what I am. Sometimes you can know something without realizing that you know until the moment you stumble across it (an image, a string of words, a piece of music) and, at that moment, a deep truth dislodges and swims to the surface towards its reflection.
That day in the theater, I saw a series of photographs that slapped something awake inside me. The images were by a photographer named Cindy Sherman who’s now so famous and so widely admired that this year, one of her photographs sold for more than anyone has ever paid before for a photograph. But back in the 1980s, she was still just emerging (like me). Back then, people were still trying to define her.
I wanted to think more about that definition (and her photos, and myself), so I wrote a thesis about her work entitled Cindy Sherman: Playing With Herself (yes, everything had a sexy undertone back then). Sherman usually uses herself as an actor in her photographs but you can’t really call her pictures self-portraits. Or maybe they are self-portraits, but not in the traditional sense where one chooses an image to project one’s best side or even the part of one’s personality with which one most identifies. Sherman does something entirely different. She uses make-up, costume, lighting, and props to transform herself into a different person and explore a new facet of personality, the kind we can see on the surface. She shows us a thousand faces–women we know, ones we’ve seen at the mall or at the movies, in magazines or history or dreams, or mothers and sisters and neighbors and ancestors, the women we might have become. It’s not always pretty– oftentimes it’s ugly or disturbing– and it’s not about herself; Sherman uses her face to project her imagination and her body to manipulate reality. The camera captures those ideas so we can hold them in front of us and marvel in the manifestation of character.
And with Cindy Sherman, anything is possible. Anything.
I was thrilled with the idea that we read faces like books and paintings like faces, that a face is a canvas and a face can be as fictitious as it is autobiographical. That semester, I got lost in Cindy Sherman’s face: lost and found. I turned in my thesis, graduated, and went on to discover my own reality.
That was more than 20 years ago. Today, if we sat down to leaf through my photo albums, you’d see me in my fancy grad school cap and gown, a white dress, or the strict-but-cool togs of a high school English teacher. There are shots of me pushing a stroller and others where I’m hunched over my laptop. If they were art, you might say these images were cliché. So far, the reality revealed in these pictures poses a meager challenge to the imagination and, flipping through my album, I can’t help but wonder what might have been, an equally cliché response. I look around at the steady, predictable setting of my life and wonder if anything else is possible. Now, if I were to ask for magical powers, I wouldn’t want a crystal ball. I’d want to be the shape-shifter. I want to be like Cindy Sherman, with unlimited versions of reality at my fingertips, hampered only by (a lack of) imagination.
That’s why I write. When I’m writing, I’m playing. Every one of my characters is a reflection of me, an idea made flesh, a dream personified. In my stories I get to play like an actress, an addict, a guru, a bitch, a little girl, a gay man, or a clown. I am drowning, hideous, violent, affluent, anonymous, dancing, amorphous, mute, and dead. I’m free. I feel like a river and a paintbrush and a train headed south.
Ironically, the older I get, the more seriously I take my play but I’m also grateful not to live in fantasy. When I’m done playing, can I just turn off my computer and go back to my lovely, uncomplicated life. I wonder what Cindy Sherman looks like on a regular day but, if given a choice between Cindy Sherman the artist and the Cindy Sherman the art, I’d choose the latter, hands down.
Sherman uses a camera and I use a laptop, but we do the same kind of thing: we make fiction, and good fiction always feels real. I keep a postcard of one of Sherman’s fictions in a frame by my writing chair. I look at it to resuscitate the many facets of my imagination and show me how it’s done, and I’m reminded that looking at one’s own stories can be much more than negative (narcissistic) or neutral (informative). It can be transformative.
In my 20s, I loved Cindy Sherman because I wanted to know what was possible. Now, I I’m drawn to her because my imagination wants to roam. Before, I was looking for my identity; now I’m yearning to transcend it.
Now, I just want to play.
Which artists inspire you to play? Include a link if you can!