One of the most important contemporary American artists of our time, Cindy Sherman’s new work is on view at the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Zurich until 16 September. Her new images are, if possible, even further removed from classic portraits than her earlier photographs; instead, the artist manipulates and distorts them to ultimately present us with disturbing results that provoke reflection on constructed identities.
Few artists have explored the illusions of identity in such depth as Cindy Sherman. Born in 1954, she made her name in the late 1970s with a series of ‘Untitled Film Images’, featuring photographs of abandoned lovers and neglected starlets, evoking never-before-seen Hitchcock and Antonioni films. In the decades since then, the artist has immersed in a world ranging from the eerie visuals of B-movie horror films and the covers of outdated men’s magazines to photographs that mimic Caravaggio and Raphael. In a career spanning almost 50 years, Cindy Sherman has introduced us to a wide range of characters.
“I have always been very interested in the grotesque. That’s partly because I feel there is so much beauty in nature alone. I don’t really see the point in just copying nature. I mean, it’s already there. Why do we need to take a beautiful picture of a beautiful sunset? I just find things that are not typical more interesting. I like the idea of something that looks beautiful, but when you look closer, you see what’s wrong with it. You’re tempted by the colour or the texture or something, and then at the last minute you’re scared by it.”
Despite the fact that she works alone and only photographs herself – wearing elaborate make-up and costume, using wigs, prosthetics and false teeth, in meticulously constructed sets – she insists that her photographs are not self-portraits. Instead, she treats herself as a model, dressed, directed and re-directed at will… only she is directing herself. This approach led critics early on to define her as a kind of film auteur. Bette Davis, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Darryl F. Zanuck all rolled into one. Many decades after her debut, in today’s age dominated by mobile cameras and social media, we are all trained to do the same. Her work has taken on a new meaning in the post-truth era, with increasingly sinister edges of fakery that we see every day in today’s “fake” social media world.
“I don’t think much about fake news, or the global debate about whether things can be trusted these days. But I am very interested in image culture and how it exists now. When I look at Instagram and the images look amazingly unreal, they’re often unreal. With artificial intelligence, that’s going to happen more and more. And we may not always know where the boundaries are.”
Sherman presented her first new series to the public in Zurich since 2020. Her work combines close-up studies of her own face, taken over 13 years between 2010 and 2023, then digitally distorted, rearranged and collaged. But we also see Picasso’s works and cubist portraits, as well as the artificial intelligence-generated images of our time. And however hard we look, we never find the real Sherman in them. At least that’s what she says. “When I’m shooting, I try to get to a point where I’m basically unaware of myself. That’s often the case.”