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Searching for Sherman

Cindy Sherman (American 1954-), Untitled #304, 1994, C-print, Betsy Mudge Wilson Memorial Fund, 1994.26

Today’s post comes from Julian Ireland, Oberlin class of 2019 and Art Center Student Docent.

It is hard to pinpoint what makes Cindy Sherman’s 1994 photograph Untitled #304 so unsettling – whether it’s the two figures who draw an ambiguous line between human and doll, or the eerie red carpeted space that they lie in. There’s a lot to unpack here. As Sherman includes herself in the majority of her photographs, I strained to locate her in this piece. For a while I was certain that she was the figure concealed by a plaster mask in the thick, gray, felt dress. This wouldn’t be too unusual, as she has been known to wear prosthetic body parts in much of her work. As feasible as this seemed, I was still held up by the figure’s eyes, which appear too glossy and artificial to belong to a human. In a recent conversation with Art Center director James Mundy, he brought up the possibility that Sherman may be portraying the other figure, who wears a Pippi Longstocking wig and is laying in the lap of the masked individual. He also suggested that she may be abandoning her signature style entirely by remaining absent from the piece, letting two humanoid mannequins take the stage. Since very little description accompanies the photograph, all of these are possibilities. Perhaps Sherman intended for the viewer to have this confusion, constantly searching for something that can be unequivocally human. I can assure you from spending hours with this piece that the search is fruitless if you’re looking for concrete answers, but bountiful in its production of questions.

Cindy Sherman (American 1954-), Untitled #216, 1989, C-print, Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser

For example: what kind of scene is Sherman trying to emulate in this photograph? In much of her work from the past, she stages herself as a visual reference, usually mimicking figures either from pop culture or history. In her 1989 photograph Untitled #216 she poses as the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus, a figure and a narrative which would be instantly recognizable to most of her viewers. In this example she portrays a more objective and approachable subject, making it easier to recognize the human quality in an otherwise abstracted piece. By comparison, Untitled #304 lacks this immediate symbol and so it is more difficult to understand and to empathize with it. Nevertheless there are near-objective elements in this image, which reveal a sense of humanity beneath the alien appearance. One element that both of these untitled pieces have in common is the relationship between the two subjects – each has a centered, upright figure cradling a smaller one in their arms. Despite the countless differences between these two pairs, both demonstrate an unmistakable expression of care. With the knowledge that there is an emotional connection in Untitled #304, the obscure and unsettling scene becomes almost heartwarming (maybe not for everyone), and opens up new possibilities for what the image could mean.

Dorothea Lange (American 1895-1965), selection from Migrant Mother series, 1936, Library of Congress

An impression that I got from the stricken gaze of the masked figure and the tragic helplessness of the person in its arms is that it may allude to impoverishment or struggle. Their unsettling appearance is not so much a threat to the viewer as it is a fearful defense, perhaps an alertness brought upon by trauma and a need to mask oneself from the world. To me it is reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” series, photographed in rural California during the Great Depression. In these images there is a similar expression of care in the face of fearful and devastating circumstances, but captured through a more realistic perspective. I want to emphasize that this is just one way of interpreting Untitled #304, and that there is too much (intentional) ambiguity in the piece to reach any real conclusions. Although, if one is willing to look carefully past all the obscurity and discomfort of the initial viewing, they may find a surprising sense of familiarity and the answer to some of their questions.

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