The Fascination of Early Sherman

By Bruce Adams

Imagine discovering a collection of unpolished short stories written by an obscure Mississippi riverboat pilot named Samuel Clemens. Say these stories contained early versions of characters and plot devices that would reappear fully developed later in some of the most celebrated fiction of the day. Think of the insight that would be gained by this peek into Clemens’ budding literary mind as he teetered on the threshold of becoming Mark Twain.

Well, to my knowledge no such works exist, but a rough postmodern approximation can be found in The Unseen Cindy Sherman: Early Transformations 1975/1976, a tiny touring exhibition of the acclaimed artist’s early works. It’s on view at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center along with a gallery-mounted companion exhibition, Cindy Sherman: Western New York Collections.

It’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem to compare Sherman—who is widely known for photographing herself in all manner of provocative guises—with Mark Twain. They both have enjoyed widespread popularity and critical acclaim in their lifetime (though, admittedly, Sherman has yet to pass the test of time), and they share a knack for inventing broad but astutely rendered characters. Since her 1977-1980 landmark movie-inspired Untitled Film Stills series, Sherman’s art star has been burning brightly.

The Unseen Cindy Sherman takes us back to the genesis of the artist’s career as a shy Buffalo State art student and early Hallwalls organizer in the seventies, when the seeds of her creative yield were being planted. At the time, Sherman was known to dress up as eccentric and sundry characters for art openings and social gatherings. Her then-boyfriend, artist Robert Longo, suggested that she document the time-intensive transformations. In a 1975 untitled series of twenty-three wallet-size pictures that appear to have been shot in a photo booth, Sherman transforms herself from her remarkably ordinary natural appearance (aviator glasses and all), to a sultry cigarette-puffing vamp.

It’s interesting to compare Sherman’s expression at the start and end of the series. As herself, the twenty-one-year-old artist adopts a vacant deer-in-the-headlights stare. Two shots later the glasses and shirt are gone, and the artist begins slathering on makeup in layers like paint. (Sherman started out as a painter.)

As more and more makeup is added, Sherman not only adopts a new appearance, she acquires a whole new persona. The first shots are black and white. As they progress, hand-tinted color is gradually introduced. Along the way, her lips part sensuously, a cigarette-fondling hand comes into view, and her head tilts seductively. By the final, richly colored frame, Sherman is emoting shamelessly, her bashful alter ego buried under pancake makeup.

The photographs are technically unrefined; Sherman rejects formalist conventions of art photography for a conceptual approach—a bold maneuver at that time. What might have started as nothing more than a playful extension of Sherman’s childhood fondness for dressing up turns out to be the inaugural launch of a career-making strategy.

A similar untitled series of twenty-five shots from 1975 depict Sherman morphing from a unibrowed, cigar-chomping train engineer into a plaintive and sometimes haughty woman of refinement. Throughout, Sherman shamelessly mugs for the camera, eliciting a surprising range of exaggerated expressions. Once again, where she appears most like herself, her expression grows blank suggesting that the self is a blank surface upon which society constructs its own transient reality.

These early works chronicle Sherman’s first tentative steps into the realms of transformation, gender identity, and the constructed self—themes that come to fruition in much of the work included in the companion exhibition.

The budding artist to which these works bear witness emerges from a unique recipe of innate traits and chance circumstances: take one reticent but prolifically talented young woman; add a keenness for mass culture, sprinkle with neo-feminist yearnings, and stir in the timely emergence of performance and conceptual art. Place it all in an intellectually invigorating pressure cooker and watch what happens.

Such an environment was the contemporary art center known as Hallwalls, which may have played the single greatest role in shaping Sherman the artist. The newly founded art space provided a stimulating communal environment where Sherman was introduced to a plethora of artistic influences such as Suzy Lake, Hanna Wilke, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, and Robin Winters.

Murder Mystery, a major series first unveiled in a Hallwalls exchange show with Artist Space in New York, provided Sherman with some vital career-launching attention. Originally, many individual photo-collaged vignettes formed a storyboard narrative comprised of cutout photos of Sherman acting out numerous character roles.

The cut-out and pasted figures form a bridge between Sherman’s stated childhood fondness for paper dolls and the subtle ambiguity of her latter work included in the companion show. While Murder Mystery comes complete with a full storyline, works like Untitled Film Stills #32—a moody film noir inspired image of a woman lighting a cigarette in the dark—demand that viewers construct their own narratives.

A four-by-four-inch black and white photograph tucked within the pages of a tiny 1976 photo album—a gift to a favorite niece—arguably sets the tone for both exhibitions, and subsequently much of Sherman’s oeuvre. (It’s reproduced in the excellent accompanying catalogue and was featured in the September/October Spree.) It’s the face of the twenty-two year old art student looking askance at the viewer and winking in a broad theatrical gesture. Her open mouth is framed by hand-colored dark red Lucile Ball lips. The picture bears the salutation, “love, Cindy.”

Sherman seems to be inviting us in on some gag—urging us not to accept things at “face” value but to look deeper. Her work contains an aspect of ironic humor that necessitates viewer complicity in the art process. For Sherman’s many and varied deconstructions of gender, identity, and pop culture to be fully operative, we must be in on the gag. These two exhibitions add to our capability to “get it.”

And then there’s craft
Craft. Go ahead, say it. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s not a bad word, either. So why do many craftspeople react to it like a vampire to holy water? Maybe it’s the proliferation of “craft” stores, kits, classes, and magazines that diminish the term with their populist “anyone-can-do-it” approach. It might even go back to the 1960s when the hippies hijacked the word to describe each beaded macramé plant hanger cranked out under the influence of hashish and sitar music.

Many contend that the line between craft and fine art is too blurred for the term to be of much use anymore. They argue, for example, that a bronze sculpture, ceramic vase, and wooden weathervane are all more or less equivalent expressions under the umbrella mantle of “art.”

So why is the current biennial exhibition at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center namedCraft Art Western New York, and what does this mix of ceramics, jewelry, furniture, and sculpted works have in common? Some maintain that the medium is the message; clay, glass, wood, metals, and fiber are traditional craft materials, though fine artists have employed these media, too.

Much of the work exhibited here—including many works that attempt to straddle the hazy line between art and craft—does not fare well by the standards of contemporary art criticism; nor should it, just as much of today’s fine art wouldn’t cut it in a junior high craft fair. They’re fundamentally different things.

For example, the ceramic figurines of Carrianne Hendrickson are nicely crafted quirky nick-knacks referencing myth and magic—like demented Hummels—but they lack, for instance, the irony of Jeff Koons’ ceramics tchotchkes, or the hallucinogenic power of Elmar Trenkwalder’s eroticized monoliths.

The strongest works in Craft Art tend to be clearly rooted in craft tradition, or firmly ensconced in the fine art camp and only incidentally made from “craft” materials. Stephen Merritts’ powerful and meticulously detailed oversize terra cotta vessels behave like sculpture without forgetting that they are containers. Merritts’ geometric precision and perfection of form and material result in visually spectacular objects.

Jewelry and metalwork make a strong impression with works like Melissa Crowell’s silver bird pin that elegantly incorporates into its design a tiny, fragile egg. Tom Ferrero delivers a detailed silver and gold chalice-inspired bracelet, and Juan Carlos Caballero-Perez combines silver, enamel, gold, pearl, and quartz into an intriguing wall-mounted conical container reminiscent of the work of Faberge.

Strong work that is more contemporary sculpture than craftwork includes Jackie Pancari’s Reflecting on Japan, a floor installation of fifty mushroom-shaped solid (red and clear) glass forms enclosing Japanese images and prints. Hweawon Chung’s The Expression of Emotions is an incongruous glass, steel, and copper chair-like sculpture that owes more to Dada than craft aesthetics with its nail-imbedded surface which undermines function. Other strong works include Kris Lyons oddball, geo-figurative ceramic sculptures, Liaung-Chung Yen’s Cages, a geometric four-finger ring with a glass-enclosed cigarette, and Joseph Bajus’ atmospheric stapled paper wall collageConnections.

I suppose a title like Crafts and Fine Arts That Use Traditional Craft Media would be a tad long. But for those of us who like words to mean something, it might be a better choice. In the end, this is an accessible and attractive exhibition—whatever else you may call it.

Bruce Adams is an artist and educator living in Western New York.