Cindy Sherman: Early Works, 1975-80 – Stills Gallery

‘Cindy Sherman: Early Works, 1975-80’ exhibits selected seminal works of the artist and photographer Cindy Sherman. Sherman considers ‘cultural imagination’; specifically, the ways identity is imagined, constructed and represented in the media. Here, the Stills Gallery provides little information on Sherman’s working process and ideas. This is saddening, because the work contains interacting concepts, and without knowing a few things to look out for it seems unfocused and underwhelming. It was only on researching Sherman and the historical context she worked in that I recognized her work’s significance.

This exhibition features two collections. The first is ‘Untitled Film Stills’. In production, Sherman photographed herself in personas from 1960s and 70s media. In the photographs, her clothes, physicality, facial expressions and surroundings appear to be in conflict-often between glamour, decrepitude and sadness. It is never clear what aspects are ‘natural’ to her human subjects and what are cultural performances. Sherman said of them: ‘there are so many levels of artifice. I like that whole jumble of ambiguity.’ These works reflect the uncertainty of individual and cultural identity at the time.

Unfortunately, its presentation doesn’t do the work justice. There is one large book of photographs on a shelf, which guests can browse. Looking at this can be unrelaxing with people hovering about waiting to look at it. It’s difficult to take the time to appreciate the art. Next to it, there are a few works from the book on the wall. They seem like a second thought. Next to the book, they appear randomly selected and don’t feel very important.

The collection ‘Untitled: Murder Mystery People’ is more successfully presented. In a similar vein to the first, Sherman takes stock characters from murder mysteries and reworks their personas. She takes the mick out of films with delightful humour: the daughter is dressed in a coat like a cemented quilt, with scraggly hair and a zombie expression. The jealous boyfriend wears mascara and has a poignant, curious drama about him. Some have pathos: the maid is sad and tight lipped. These recognize the emotional complexity of characters often presented as one-dimensional. The images are in a line, and the viewer must keep going back to the start to read the next character’s name. The suspense is humorously self-aware and pantomime.

The last piece is a short film called ‘Doll Clothes’. Sherman is in her underwear in a book of pretty animation. In a clear pocket, she is seen as a doll. In the next pocket are clothes. She tries the clothes on, experimenting. Then a large hand picks her up, undresses her, puts the clothes back and places her back in her pocket. This is an eloquent argument that women are drawn to exploring different identities and drawing boundaries around themselves, but have that opportunity taken away from them and are left bare and exposed, perhaps as an object of a sexual gaze. The book’s pretty world is proven to be only pretty and fictional to those looking at it from the outside. Inside, there are real human beings who don’t find its restrictions beautiful.

The only way to get adequate information on the work during the exhibition is to buy an extremely expensive book from the gift shop. This is not inclusive and is alienating. If I had not written this review, I doubt that I would have found the contextual information that interested me. Nevertheless, the artwork itself is brilliant.


‘Cindy Sherman: Early Works, 1975-80’ is free and runs at the Stills Gallery until October 6th.

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James Sullivan

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