Cindy Sherman under Metamorphosis at Serralves Museum

Cindy Sherman is a contemporary art icon, a renowned name especially in photography. After more than twenty years, she returns to Portugal for an impressive retrospective, at Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, in partnership with The Broad Art Foundation of Los Angeles. The exhibition Metamorfoses, which opened on October 4 and will end on April 16, is dense, featuring an extensive and remarkable selection of the artist’s works, spanning her entire career. The show is dynamic, challenging, and immersive, hallmarks of Sherman’s work. The curatorship is worthy of praise. By Philippe Vergne and overseen by Paula Fernandes, it does justice to one of the most brilliant artists of our time.

Sherman, although renowned for working based on her figure, shies away from self-portraiture. As she told Philippe Vergne, she discards an image when she sees herself in it. Her aim is the opposite: detaching from herself and representing the other. She plays the roles of photographer and model, director and set designer, author of dramatic, methodical, and detailed productions made in her studio and with the technology of digital photography. In her childhood, the artist explored characterisation and interpretation, achieving from an early age mastery in the use and manipulation of make-up, clothes, and props. The performative nature is inherent to her.

In her work, Sherman uses the mask in a broad sense, not only physical and objectual, but also figurative. How she identifies and displays, the presentation and revelation to the world, by every individual, is an exercise in representation. Power, status, class, etc., wear masks and are figuratively represented through portraiture, the main method of identification and social affirmation of nobility and monarchy, and then of the bourgeoisie (and, with photography, of the people), from the Middle Ages to modern society. We see this at the beginning of the exhibition, with Retratos Históricos that start in the 16th century and went on to the early 19th century. From there, the History of culture, power and the media is presented. The artist’s work emerges, a product of fiction and reality. As she argues, quoting Agustina Bessa-Luís in the preface to her book Metamorfoses (2007), “metamorphosis is the instrument of reality”.

This concept, which lends its title to the exhibition, reveals Sherman’s artistic process: metamorphosing herself to personify the most diverse characters. Once the photographic production is completed, she invites and encourages the viewer to indulge in free imagination and interpretation, helped by the fact that the pieces are untitled. But we can identify appropriations of styles and themes, in particular great masters of art history, such as David; and we recognise figures from literature (although never confirmed), such as Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterlay or Oscar Wilde – the three in the exhibition’s third and final area.

As Philippe Vergen states, most of Sherman’s photographs are portraits à charge, that is, portraits based on models. Although they cannot be labelled as caricatures, they have exaggerated features and imperfections. The pinnacle of figuration is the series Palhaços, adding a perceptible tension to the “mask room”. In this context, we are reminded of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, addressing absurdity, alienation, oppression and loneliness, states, and realities visible in the artist’s photographs. This work reflects the human condition, something essential in Sherman’s art.

In the exhibition’s second room is the artist’s earliest work, made during her early years in New York. Analogue, black, and white photographs depict women portrayed and objectified by the film industry. The same theme is then analysed from the perspective of fashion and pornography. We highlight a magnificent series from 1976, where the female figure is always shot in the same frame and posture – seated, waiting for the bus, denouncing, and standardising the stereotypes imposed by society.

The gender issue is recurrent in Sherman’s work. This is one of the main concerns she shares with artists of the same generation, such as Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine, also pivotal in the context of contemporary photography and art. Another common issue is the overabundance of images, as well as their manipulation and use by the mass media for political and socio-economic purposes.

In short, the exhibition has a strong conceptual side, the result of multiple discursive and aesthetic relationships. It is a challenging show, object of multiple experiences, numerous narratives, and readings, helped by the venue’s architecture, which underlines the dramatic side of photography, wonderfully transforming the museum’s left wing. Or rather: the metamorphosis of the latter.

We must also highlight the impressive mural designed for this event, which ends the exhibition with unparalleled visual beauty. It displays the features of one of the most singular and remarkable works of all contemporary artistic creation, the art of Cindy Sherman.

Constança Babo (Porto, 1992) has a PhD in Media Art and Communication from Universidade Lusófona. Her research focuses on new media arts and curatorship. She has a master's degree in Art Studies - Art Theory and Criticism from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto and a degree in Visual Arts - Photography from the Porto School of Art. She has published scientific articles and critical texts. She was a research fellow in the international project Beyond Matter, at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, and was a researcher at Tallinn University, in the MODINA project.

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