Makeup as Performance: Cindy Sherman

Do we create our own identities, or are they created for us? In the age of seemingly infinite aesthetic choices (including surgery), are our physical identities truly fluid, or are they dependent on the stage upon which we perform?

Visiting the Cindy Sherman retrospective at MOMA, there’s a lot to be divined on these questions. Sherman, who has famously cast herself as various personas in self portraits for the past thirty-seven years, has used the genre to explore perception and roles of self, especially for women. The characters she invents seem to inhabit their own worlds – sometimes believable, often outlandish, and occasionally macabre.

In her more subtle, “believable” self portraits, she illustrates different outcomes of age and class, dress and makeup in feminine identity. And looking at the contrast between her early work series Untitled Film Stills (1978-1980) and her recent “Socialite” self portraits (2007-2008), there seem to be two different ideas regarding modern feminine identity, and how performance of self change with age and class.

Untitled Film Stills

Cindy Sherman first came into prominence with her Untitled Film Stills, a series of black and white portraits of herself playing young women. These characters, created with makeup, wigs, and props, were reminiscent of characters in realist movies. There’s a certain voyeuristic feeling to them, as if the camera is spying on these women.

These portraits were noted for their subversion of mass media archetypes of women – archetypes that were created mostly by men. They seem to suggest that if our female iconography is molded by men, perhaps we can take it over ourselves – and in doing so, mold our own images.

Socialite Portraits

The Socialite series comes much later in Sherman’s career, after years of success – and exposure to wealthy art patrons.The characters in these portraits are older, wealthier, and with the use of Photoshop as well as props, more diverse in their looks. And unlike the naifs from the Untitled Film Stills – who are being watched without their knowledge – the Socialites are addressing the camera directly, even confronting it.

This later series suggests that the question of identity is not as simple as re-appropriating male-created archetypes. Yes, these women matured within a social space that is defined by men. But they are also women with power and wealth, and presumably have access to the props and technology to mold their images in the way they desire. And Sherman’s portraits of them suggest that there is more to their image than just money and will – the demands of nature and society have also made their marks.

What Roles are We Playing?

That the same person is portraying all these people is illuminating – how many different people could we be? Obviously it’s not just hair and makeup. All our roles are dependent on others – and not just in the ‘male gaze’ way. A socialite becomes who she is in relation to society – even a movie character is dependent on her story. And these roles add up into a more pronounced persona. We curate our identities in the face of our individual lives and our audience.

How we view beauty is also dependent on subtle gradations of social conduct. Hippies are expected to view it in certain ways, as are feminists, makeup artists, or art critics. Feminism’s promise is that that we have full freedom of expression, if we can just throw off the shackles of male hegemony. And Capitalism’s promise is that we have full freedom of expression, if we can just buy enough stuff to make ourselves over. We assume that our identities are fluid in the modern world, and we remake ourselves over into new people regularly. But ultimately, we may have only so much control over the roles we play, and over the “identity” through which we play them. And by making herself over into all these different women, Sherman shows us the fragility of those choices, and the unconscious display of that which is underneath the effort.

Cindy Sherman retrospective at MOMA, through June 11, 2012.

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