Cindy Sherman’s photographs have graced exhibition walls around the world for the past forty years, and now all 65 pieces held in Thomas Olbricht’s collection are on display at his Auguststraße space, the me Collectors Room. Here’s a chance to delve into a broad spectrum of the photographic artist’s work, unprecedented in Berlin since the Martin-Gropius-Bau’s 2007 retrospective.
Olbricht began collecting art in the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until 1996 that he took a fateful glance through a Soho gallery window at a few pieces by Sherman – it was love at first sight. Right then and there he made his first purchase of contemporary photography and over the years he’s become an important Sherman collector. While there surely must be some ego involved in owning dozens of (very expensive) artworks by the ultimate art star, it also comes across as a personal obsession too. The last sentence of his catalogue essay for the exhibition is a not-so-subtle nod to that theory: “Cindy, I love your work, I love you.”
That’s the thing about Sherman’s work – everybody loves it. She’s been firmly positioned on ArtFact’s list of the top 10 artists in the world for years (sadly the only female artist to rank that high). Sherman most often uses herself as her model, albeit heavily adorned with makeup, wigs, prosthetics, masks and costumes, to create photographs that address how women and their bodies are altered, obstructed or revealed.
Walking through the first and second rooms, you’ll encounter Sherman over and over again in several untitled series (but thematic titles have always been used by the art world). Her black and white Film Stills of the late 1970s, 16 of which are featured at the beginning of the exhibition, show the artist as various female archetypes in their natural surroundings, recognizable from films or commercials. To some extent she becomes “every woman” – her housewife, city girl, or starlet speak to the nuanced societal projections onto the female body that are specific to the time they were made, yet still powerfully resonant today.
Twelve of her Hampton Types (2000) present you with headshot-like studio portraits of different women with over-the-top makeup and orange tans, grasping at beauty that may be slipping away from them. Here, Sherman nudges the viewer with obvious signs of her disguises – the edges of her prosthetics are clear and body parts are exaggerated to the extreme. Slightly less overt are two of her Society Portraits (2008) that feature upper class women, situated in lavish spaces, who seem to be trying hard to not reveal their efforts to ‘look good’.
Certain series of Sherman’s are represented by only one piece, such as the must-see Untitled #96 (1981, photo) from the Centerfolds series, featuring a young woman lying on what looks like the kitchen floor, in a tense, motionless moment that insists, something is about to happen. While the title evokes a sexy spread, this series points to the relationship between the sexualisation of the female body and the violence against it. In the next room is Untitled #551 (2010/12), part of a recent series made from digitally manipulated images of herself in extravagant 1920s Coco Chanel haute couture and pasted into natural, yet surreal landscapes.
The third and last room of the exhibition is where you’re confronted by what are widely considered Sherman’s more challenging works. The collection’s pieces from Broken Dolls (1999), Disasters (1986-89), Masks (1994-96), and Sex Pictures (1992) stage dark, grotesque, and somewhat horrific scenes. Sherman, or sometimes dolls, confront the camera with unbroken stares, their bodies contorted.
Most shocking are the large close-up images of prosthetic genitalia. Again, cinematic lighting and sets build a tense and anticipatory mood. Also present are three unsettling History Portraits (1988-90) that reference classical painting, and three Clowns (2003-04), which are traditional portraits of circus clowns worthy of leading roles in nightmares.
All of the photographs have a sense of tension and vulnerability that are inextricable from the image-age human, and to a further extent, female experience. The works in the front rooms, with their criticism of complex societal structures, could be collectively read as consciousness, in the Freudian sense.
Meanwhile, the majority of the disturbing works in the back room could the subconscious – hidden under the surface and formed by an infinite number of ephemeral and traumatic experiences. Here, elusive unease has been caught by Sherman’s shutter, creating vivid worlds that are at once hers and all of ours. Whether we revel or recoil, we can’t look away.
Cindy Sherman, through Apr 10, 2016 | me Collectors Room Auguststr. 68, Mitte, S-Bhf Oranienburger Str., Tue-Sun 12-18