Last night I had a dream about Cindy Sherman, probably because I’ve been reading books about her work and watching interviews in my quest for knowledge. In my dream I was living in New York. I lived in an apartment that looked like a jail cell. The bathtub, toilette and kitchen were all in one tiny box of a room along with a plaid covered couch. I had ordered Chinese food on the flesh colored, old fashioned dial phone.
Cindy Sherman delivered my food, except when she came to my door she was dressed as an Italian man in Chef Boyardee outfit. She had on a twirly mustache and she was delivering a pizza instead of Chinese food. When I opened the pizza box it was filled with fake teeth and clown noses. I was grossed out but she was laughing. She hit me on the side of my arm and told me not to be so serious and that she was “just messing with me”. She invited me to come to her studio and said that we could hang out and take some photos. She gave me a piece of paper with the address on it and left.
I was so excited. In my dream I had a suitcase full of wigs and props, I grabbed it and headed out the door, but once I got outside I realized I had no idea where I was and when I tried to look at the address on the paper, it was all blurry and I couldn’t read it. I spent the rest of the dream wandering the shittiest parts of New York, lost.
I remember the first time I saw a Cindy Sherman photograph. It was in the first photography class I took in college.
My teacher was Frank. Frank was a little out there; he was spacey and funny and seemed to have a difficult time focusing on his lectures. The rumor was that he was experimenting with self portraits in his early 20s by dipping himself into a bathtub full of developing chemicals and laying his naked body on photo paper. It was thought that the toxic chemicals he exposed himself to messed with his brain.
Frank seemed to get started on one subject and then would get side tracked into obscure personal stories. I learned a lot from him because of this. I liked that in Frank’s class you weren’t just getting a textbook education in photography, but a personal experience from his unique point of view. I was thrilled when he asked for a copy of a photo that I took at a comic book store. The photo was of a vintage batman doll. He said he really liked it and so I made a print for him. I wonder if he still has it.
In one class he showed a slide show of influential photography. I remembered 2 photographs distinctly from this slide show throughout my life. These 2 photos stuck to my brain over the years but only recently, since I’ve been interested in learning more about art in photography have I learned what these photos were, who took them and why. Up until then they were just memorable images that I could never forget.
The photos were:
“Curlers” by Diane Arbus – I remember Frank talking about her strange subject matter and the fact that “technically speaking” the quality of the photo wasn’t all that good, yet it was a compelling and compassionate image.
The other photo was…
“Untitled Film Still #48” by Cindy Sherman – I remember Frank explaining how the artist took photos of herself dressed as different characters. He asked the class what we thought of when we looked at the photo. I raised my hand and said the photo made me think of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
I didn’t know then but Untitled Film Still # 48 would be permanently transfixed in my mind from that day forward. For years I recalled the photo in my imagination but couldn’t remember the name of the artist. I was haunted by it and began fantasizing about photographing my own versions of fairy tales which is what that photo looked like to me, Dorothy hitchhiking to Oz.
Many years later I was at a party with my husband and a bunch of musicians he played music with. Back in those days I didn’t play anything or conceder myself musically literate. The host of the party noticed I looked bored and gave me two art books to look at, a book about Georgia O’Keeffe and a book about Cindy Sherman. She told me she thought Cindy Sherman would be right up my alley and I started thumbing through the pages when all of the sudden I found the page with Untitled Film Still #48! Finally here was the photo I had been trying to find all these years. I was excited and started showing everybody in the room. That was when I first became aware that I was interested in Cindy’s work.
My first art show in 2007 called Everything Alice was wholly inspired by Untitled Film Still #48. I used my friend Jenny as the subject and she dressed as my favorite fairy tale character, Alice. This was really my first experiment. It was the first show and the first body of work that I was truly proud of.
I love that Cindy Sherman just plays dress up in front of a camera. She shops at thrift stores, collecting other’s discarded items and builds unique characters based on the treasures she unearths.
I had to try it for myself. With The Cindy Sherman Experiment I’ve really only barely scratched the surface of this idea. I played around with the costumes and props I had laying around the house. I created 4 basic characters and experimented with photographing myself.
I created each piece between the hours of 9am and 11am while my son was at school. I felt like I needed totally privacy to create my characters. I did my make-up and costume and then quickly photographed myself and took a shower before I had to come back to the reality of the day’s usual activities of being a stay-at-home mom and a housewife. Even though I don’t have a lot of personal time to experiment with art, I always make sure to at least make an attempt at creating something. It’s the one true indulgence I allow myself.
While researching Cindy Sherman’s work I thumbed through many different books in the library. I discovered her art to constantly link with discussions of feminism. Not discussions by her as the artist so much, but other people’s discussions about their take on her art. I think Cindy’s first show was in 1977 and back then, there seemed to be a lot of sexism in art. That’s what I gathered from what I read anyways. I wonder how much of that exists in the art world these days.
While I respect most female artists, I have never really got into the ball busting, man hating feminism side of things. In my personal experience I have been nurtured more by men and criticized much more heavily by women. Feminism in art doesn’t interest me.
My father and my husband had always encouraged and inspired me in my art. My father was into photography and was thrilled when I expressed an interest in it at an early age. He developed the first photos I ever took in his own darkroom.
My husband Myke has always helped me with my art and music and is my biggest fan.
However, I have had many of the women I’ve looked up to in my life flat out reject both me as a person and my art. I even allowed some of the women in my past to discourage me from attending art school and shame me for creating some of my pieces. I have looked to other women who I know are educated and experienced in the art world only to have them greedily horde their knowledge and humiliate me when I attempt to join a discussion about art. I have struggled far more at the mercy of my fellow sisters than I have from any man in my life.
I understand the relevance of feminism in different times and places throughout our world. I’ve read about it and seen it portrayed in movies, but in my experience women are far more critical and cruel towards other women these days than men are.
When I started this experiment I was just playing around with make-up and costumes. I was surprised to learn a lot more about myself as a person, my place in the world and in art. The days of hating my face and body seem to be over. The days of not creating what I see in my imagination for fear of disappointing a viewer are also starting to fade away. I’m becoming free and letting go of what’s been holding me back. By photographing myself as different characters I have somehow learned to like myself as much as I like other people. I don’t know how long it will last, but for now I’m feeling good. I’m a lover. I love people for the most part and now I realize I’m just the same as most everybody else or maybe everybody else is just as messed up as I am in their own ways.
We are all hurling at light speed toward the grave, flailing our arms and legs madly about trying to hold onto something and to be something. I see this in the work of Cindy Sherman. To me, it seems as though she is experimenting with being everybody, creating make-believe people out of the garments and items that others cast away. This idea will always excite me and I’m sure it will fuel many of my future experiments.
Cheers to Cindy Sherman for playing dress up and making stuff! Now if I can only read this address, we can hang out and do a project together.