Image: Ellie Buttrose. Image Source.
Google any combination of the words “feminist”, “photographer” and “groundbreaking” and I guarantee you’ll come across the work of Cindy Sherman. She is a seminal artist and the master of conceptual portraiture, with her remarkable career spanning over four decades. While her own image is the physical subject of her work, her pieces are not self-portraits, but rather character studies which elucidate themes such as ageing, celebrity culture, capitalism, fashion and the various representations of women in art and media.
Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art is currently housing a large-scale Cindy Sherman exhibition thanks to Ellie Buttrose, Associate Curator of GOMA. As an expert on contemporary art (and someone who knows Sherman’s work almost as well as the photographer herself), Ellie has a deep insight into the nature of Sherman’s work as well as the significance of her photography on the industry itself. I had a chat with her about pulling off such an innovative and large-scale exhibition, the evolution of Cindy Sherman’s practice and her pivotal influence on feminism and art.
Arabella: So, the Cindy Sherman exhibition is currently showing at GOMA in Brisbane until October 3rd – I’ve heard amazing things about it, how has it been received so far?
Ellie: Really well. We’ve had such a great critical response, and it’s nice to see people really spending time with the work. I think that so much of what’s interesting about Cindy’s work is all the details and the humour and fragility that’s in the small things, so it’s nice to see people really engaging with it.
Arabella: Absolutely, this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of people to see Cindy Sherman’s work up close as well so I assume it’s garnered pretty big crowds.
Ellie: Yes! Because the last major show in Australia was in 1999. The Retrospective that toured to Sydney, so it’s an amazing opportunity, and to see such large bodies of each of the series as well, it’s quite unusual.
Arabella: Have you always been a fan of Cindy Sherman’s work? How did you go about sourcing her work for GOMA?
Ellie: Cindy’s someone that you study in art school or art history and as someone who’s interested in feminist art history, she was a strong part of my studies, and so it’s an amazing opportunity to go from being a fan of someone’s work to working directly with them. She’s very well respected, so you have to get in to her diaries a number of years in advance.
Image: Cindy Sherman Untitled. Image courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
Ellie: She had actually been to GOMA a few years ago without us knowing, and so when we approached her, she came on board with the idea and said she really liked the gallery, so that was definitely a plus. And then working with her, it’s about going through her back catalogue and figuring out which work we’d like to include, but also finding out where they are in the world. So we work closely with her gallerist, Metro Pictures. That’s part of what we do as curators, find out where all the works are held and then approach them. I’ve got quite a number of private loans on display, and so it was generous of those people to come on board.
Arabella: So from the time of conception, when you knew you wanted to put this on, to now – how long was that process?
Ellie: It’s years and years in advance from when you first approach them. I mean, Cindy’s someone who we have in the collection, so we had bought a piece, which you may have seen, it’s the two women, one wearing big glasses, and so we bought that a number of years ago and then we just approached her and sent her a letter, and then you talk for a couple of years about what the show could be. Really the bulk of the work happens in the last two years, before the exhibition opens.
Arabella: It must be amazing for it to all pay off, and to see it all come together!
Ellie: Yes! See it realised.
Arabella: So she explores a lot of different concepts throughout her work, including aging, celebrity culture, narcissism, as well as the representation of women in the media, so as a curator, was there a single consistent theme that she deals with that you really wanted the exhibition to portray, specifically?
Ellie: So our exhibition starts with her work from the year 2000. And that’s when she returned as the model in her work. In the 90s she had been using props and she had been behind the camera, so it was really about looking at Cindy’s return as the model in her work, which she has consistently done since 2000, and then it’s also about Cindy’s engagement with digital technology. In the first room you see works that are just done on film with a plain paper backdrop, and then there’s two works that actually have Photoshop backgrounds and that’s kind of her first moment where she moves into the digital, and then over the course of the exhibition, she’ll also start using a digital camera and it means that the backgrounds become much more elaborate, but also the works become much bigger. So we have works that are over five metres high and ten metres long as well.
Arabella: Those five metre tall ones sound incredible. What are some of the stand out pieces in the show?
Ellie: Yeah, they’re called the mural series, her large works, and they’re quite amazing because she really custom makes them each time they’re shown. So for us they’re in the central area of the exhibition, so as you move around the exhibition you keep getting glimpses of them. We worked very closely with her to decide on how they should be presented, and this is the first time they’re being presented on these curved walls. Because she’s done this amazing doubled image it gives you a quiet illusory sense of space, because they’re on curved walls and doubled image, so that was a really exciting part to this exhibition, working closely on that custom-made work, just for GOMA. After GOMA it’s touring to Wellington, so it’ll be a totally different space and she’ll reconfigure it and the figures will fit differently in the space, accordingly.
Arabella: Yeah, and what you mentioned before, about her using digital photography now, it’s so interesting the way her practice has developed since her early career, moving away from altering her image with prosthetic makeup and lighting techniques to now digital manipulation. Do you think that that’s allowed her to explore more characters and more themes and concepts in her work, or do you think her work would have had the same effect if she had stuck with film and just relied on makeup and simple props?
Ellie: In some ways she’s using the same principles, so in the same way that she used makeup and prosthetics, it’s almost as if Photoshop becomes another piece in her tool kit, so that it just enables her to do a lot more with that. It’s become so prevalent in the way that we make images these days, so of course she has to address this. It’s so much involved with the fashion world particularly, and the way that people are portrayed especially as they age, and the way they’re represented in the media.
Image: Cindy Sherman Untitled. Image courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
Arabella: And speaking of fashion, the exhibition includes some of her collaborations with fashion houses like Balenciaga and Chanel. There’s a preoccupation within both fashion and artistic photography with capturing very young, naturally beautiful, thin, waiflike female figures, and Cindy Sherman kind of flips that trope. Do you think that’s what makes her a powerful figure to be involved in fashion industry in that way?
Ellie: Absolutely. She’s done a number of collaborations with the fashion world over the years, and we have two in the show. I think she is really interested in who can actually buy the fashion that’s being advertised, versus who we actually see wearing the fashion. There’s quite a large gap between them, so I think in the Balenciaga series you actually see the people who can afford to buy Balenciaga, rather than perhaps the fit model types, who are seen on the runway. You have these more everyday characters rather than people that you see in the art world and the fashion world. I think there’s a lot of crossover between the art world and the fashion world, particularly now.
Balenciaga is owned by a major art collector and Luisa Prada, she’s also a huge art collector, and there are artists who are often in the front row of fashion shows. There’s quite a bit of crossover, and I think it’s because in a way, sometimes the fashion and the art world could be seen to have similar logic, so Cindy wants to sometimes make ugly images for the fashion world, and yet the fashion world love that. In the art world there have been many artists and movements who have tried to rage against what’s happening in contemporary art. If you think about conceptual artists, they were trying to make works that you couldn’t sell as a reaction to famous painters, and yet now conceptual art is one of the most sought after genres.
So in that same way, they kind of have this logic of taking anything that riles against them and making it a part of their world in a strong way.
Arabella: She has been praised as a feminist figure within the art world, I read a quote by her that says “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.” Do you think that the pure fact that she is a female artist, especially one who works with her own image, pushes her in this category of a feminist artist when maybe she could see that as a restrictive label that she never intended, or do you think it’s important regardless to recognise her contribution to feminism within the arts?
Ellie: Well, she doesn’t title or label her works. So they’re all untitled, and even each series doesn’t have a title, it gets a nickname once people start writing about it, then they kind of gather these nicknames. For example, the Head Shots, the Clown Series, the Society Portraits – and that’s very deliberate on Cindy’s side, because if you give an artwork a title, it means that then you start looking at that artwork through the lens of whatever that title may be. And I think the strength of Cindy’s work is that they’re so open for interpretation. So even though I think she is in many ways a feminist artist, to say herself that she is a feminist artist, to self-proclaim that would mean that she’s only looked through the lens as a feminist artist. I think that restricts the view, and I think the strength of Cindy’s work and her whole practice is that she’s always been very open to interpretation.
So I think that, for me, is my understanding of why she makes that stand.
Arabella: Yeah, I guess she kind of creates her work and then just leaves it with the audience.
Arabella: Do you have a personal favourite of Cindy’s characters throughout the years?
Ellie: It changes the more I spend time in the exhibition. I’m always giving tours and there’s so many works to like. It’s particularly exciting for us, we’re the first public museum to show her latest body of works that are inspired by silent film, Hollywood film, and noir film, and so I think it’s very exciting to show these new works. They’ve been made in a new way, they’re printed onto metal rather than paper which is very exciting, and you get this very luxurious surface, she’s also using a new camera, so you get quite a different effect.
There’s a work in there in which she’s wearing this kind of pale pink sequined dress and she’s got this rising Manhattan skyline behind her, and in a way, this is quite amazing, because it almost looks as if it’s got some similarities between her untitled film stills, her very early famous work. So it seems like it’s this older woman reflecting upon her life as she stares out from this image, but in a way, this set up of this image almost looks as if Cindy herself is looking back on her practice.
Arabella: She travelled to Brisbane to see the exhibition, didn’t she?
Ellie: Yeah, she came and installed.
Arabella: Was it nerve wracking at all for you to be working with her?
Ellie: Well, she’s really lovely. She’s kind of notoriously private, but in person she’s very warm and very generous and she has a very dry wit, so it’s actually a great pleasure to have her. She’ll be also coming to New Zealand as well for the instillation.
Arabella: Do you feel a certain pressure being responsible for presenting and curating someone else’s art?
Ellie: Of course, it’s a huge part of being a curator that you’re here to help facilitate the wishes of the artist. That’s really exciting and it’s a very big privilege, to be put in that position, to be entrusted with presenting these works, and there’s such a huge span of people who work at the gallery, and so the curator is the one liaising directly with the artist, trying to convey their wishes to the design team, who design the spaces, or the graphic design people, to make sure that anything we do with the images is done with the upmost care, and with the marketing team, there’s so many people to work with, which is why it’s so great. It’s always about getting the artist’s wishes across, but also facilitating the public’s engagement with these works.
You need to make them accessible to a broad range of people, so lots of people in the art world might know who Cindy Sherman is, but perhaps not everyone may know who she is, so working with our public programs team to help facilitate high school students or art history students from a local university to come in and engage with the works in different ways as well.
Arabella: I was originally going to ask you whether you think that her work is like the original selfie before the selfie existed, but after doing some more research I read that she actually doesn’t like selfies at all! There’s kind of this strange paradox in her disliking them, as, even though you wouldn’t call her portraits self-portraits at all, she’s still the physical subject of the works.
Ellie: She’s like an actor, the character. So for her, it’s these character types, whereas selfies have this sense of narcissism.
Arabella: So do you think that there’s a difference between dressing up and capturing your own image for the purpose of art as opposed to the purpose of self-promotion? Is intent the key there, if she’s critiquing narcissism and celebrity culture?
Ellie: Definitely. I think you look at those works in the Balenciaga series and they evoke some of that selfie culture. She’s not taking selfies. She really thinks of them as other characters, she has nicknames for them, and as you walk around the exhibition while we’re installing, she was very much talking about them as these other characters in the room. She definitely does address selfie culture in the work.
Arabella: So after Brisbane the show is traveling to the City Gallery in Wellington, and that’s from 19th of November to the 19th of March, will you get much time there after you’re done installing
Ellie: Yeah, I’ll go there for the installation and Cindy will come out to install as well, and then I’ll do public programs on the opening weekend, and then I have to unfortunately fly back to Brisbane. But it’s great to be able to see it travel to Wellington, and also to present it in a totally different space to GOMA. It feels like almost doing a whole new exhibition, and it’s great to be able to take on some of the ideas that we’ve done here, but do them in a totally different way in Wellington.
Arabella: Have you been to that gallery before? Do you know what you’re working with?
Ellie: Yes, it’s fabulous. GOMA’s space is…well we kind of custom built them to the art works, whereas City Gallery is this beautiful old building and so the spaces are all set, so it’s a totally different way of working for me, as a curator.
Check out the upcoming exhibition at City Gallery Wellington. Details here!