Symmetrical Reciprocity

Head down to Charing Cross tube station then sidle along the side of Trafalgar Square before edging up the incline and past the National Gallery on my way to get to the National Portrait Gallery. Evidently there must be a bit of a heightened security risk today as some poor bloke is stuck by the Gallery entrance taking a cursory poke around in the bags of the tourists trying to get into the place. Naturally, the woman directly in front of me, in an attempt to be helpful and speed things up, has managed to achieve the exact opposite effect by needlessly emptying the contents of her backpack, bumbag and Pret a Manger takeaway sandwich snackpack onto the desk in front of her. The guard groans and finally manages to convince her that she’s managed to convince everyone else of her innocence and that it’s ok for her to go on into the Gallery. And so the rest of the queue patiently waits while she repacks her wardrobe, chattels and lunch – and I graciously grind my teeth.

Normally I like to travel light and avoid carrying any kind of bags, reticules or portmanteaux, partly so that I don’t get delayed by these kinds of meaningless searches – but today is the hottest day of the year, of the decade, century – since records began or time was invented, or some such piece of dubious statistical nonsensicality. Suffice to say that even I have had to shed my usual comforting light-weight jacket. But it comes at a cost and the practical downside of this sartorial switchover is that all the normal essential components of my city survival kit – wallet, pen, mobile telephonic apparatus, Swiss army knife, passport, vade mecum, abridged copy of Proust, Walther PPK, etc etc – the kinds of things that under typical circumstances would get strategically stuffed into various coat pockets and hidden vents, have all had to be decanted into my small all-purpose emergency portable manbag container – a sturdy little plastic bag that I picked up from Fortnum & Mason‘s the last time I visited their exclusively convenient convenience store. Frankly, I don’t really fancy some bored jobsworth rifling through my personal possessions but then, just as I’m getting ready to cut and make a break for it, fortune smiles: the man in charge looks me over, sees the royal insignia on my distinctive turquoise bag and waves me straight through. I guess he must have been on one of those personality profiling courses and, sizing up the six-pack physique, noble silvery tonsure and overall suavity of my M&S smart-casual designer-ware demeanour – not to mention the confident gait and look of steely determination in the eyes – must have quickly determined that the man standing before him was no anarchistic terrorist type but an upstanding member of the blogospherical fourth estate, out on a continuing mission to educate, enlighten and influence those who seek a greater understanding of the current currents of aesthetical and museological practices.

But if it’s impressive what the trained professional eye can tell just by looking at the face, clothes and stance of a fellow citizen, you don’t really have to have any special qualification to make such automatic evaluations of the strangers in the streets. It’s what we all unwittingly do all the time and, by a process of symmetrical reciprocity, being aware of that ongoing judgemental process that others are continually making inevitably leads to us all to try to shape our own appearance, in an attempt to take control of the situation and project the image which we hope will be read by others in the way we would wish them. Of course, all these little signals that we send out, whether it’s by way of the clothes we wear, the props we carry or the phraseology of body language statements that we make with varying degrees of control, are subsequently mediated by the means of their projection only to be subsequently deciphered and interpreted and reprojected onwards by all who come across them. So now, in the golden age of the self-obsessional selfie era and the instant of the instantly instagrammable posting, what better time to examine the works of an artist who has made a career out of her experimental investigations into the conceptual framework behind the self-constructed self-portrait?

Although, before entering the retrospective exhibition of Cindy Sherman‘s famous photoworks, I feel obliged to have a small detouring grumble that the full price of admission today is a quite stunning £20! Fortunately my National Art Pass (annual charge £40) reduced this down to £10 but, even so, this strikes me as being a quite serious chunk of cash especially when there are so many other potential entertainments out there tempting a touristic visit. And I can’t quite understand why it’s so much. After all, Cindy Sherman is a very successful artist and I imagine is not short of cash, so it’s hard to believe that she demanded some outrageous exhibition fee for her works to be shown, especially since the National Portrait Gallery is a the kind of prestigious venue in which I’m sure she would be honoured to be given such an exhibiting opportunity. But then, there also seems to be a number of major sponsors backing the exhibition so maybe the fault lies with the management of the Gallery, who perhaps decided that they would charge what they thought they could get away with in a kind of supply and demand money-raising equation. Who knows? And I suppose I shouldn’t really complain since the obvious beneficial logistical result of this excessively high charge is that most of the viewing rooms are comparatively devoid of other viewers.

Oh well, back to the art and the exhibition itself is really rather good, confirming that while Sherman may have ploughed and reploughed a narrow field, she’s done so with consistent surety of vision and a sufficiently clever variance and evolution of elemental ideas that, despite the fact that every single photograph in the show – and I guess there must be at least a hundred or so in total – is a picture of the self-same artist, all manage to grab the attention of the viewer and hold it. So, how does she do it? Well, just like the best movie stars or stage actors, having carefully put on her make-up and costume and prepared her accompanying props, she inhabits her roles with such conviction that her own persona seems to dissolve away leaving the viewer to construct the narrative that explains the replacement being framed in front of them. Or, to put it another way, Sherman has a clever way of camouflaging herself with disguise outfit wigs, prosthetics and clothing accessories to construct a seemingly never-ending parade of character types that are just recogniseable enough to engender a sense of familiarity without ever quite lapsing into stereotype or caricature.

And then, having done all that there is, of course, the final trick, achieved when she carefully stages the setting and sets up the props that complete the fictional backstory into which her figures are embedded and finally photographically framed. It’s a careful process that very deliberately draws upon the various tricks and tropes of whichever format she has chosen to deconstruct – film still, magazine cover, centrefold spread, celebrity portrait – before reconstructing the end result to emphasise the particular point that she’s trying to make. Which, I suppose, could be summarised as being something about playing around with the artificiality of the portrait genre in general as well as the transmutability of the human format in particular; or maybe the way we all unwittingly prejudicially prejudge people by the way they look; or perhaps how the medium manages to manipulate the images that it post out. Although, ultimately, of course, it’s the very fact that it’s so hard to precisely pin down what Sherman is up to when she reconfigures her physiognomy, re-makes her make up and refashions her fashions, that makes her works so consistently intriguing to look at.

The show is laid out chronologically so the famous set of small black and white shots that deservedly propelled Sherman to almost instant star status come early on and they’re probably still her best work. There’s just something so compelling about this sequence of shots that look like the film still promo pics from the imaginary Hitchcock thriller that might have been made as a follow up to his horror masterpiece Psycho. The disjointed scenes that show Sherman as both innocent and ingenue, wandering the city or holed up in an apartment room suggest the hard-boiled narratives from a dozen old B-movie scripts. Though I’m not quite sure quite why those creaky stories should carry such powerful comforting associations – maybe because their complicated comic book plots seem so innocent when contrasted with the reality of contemporary criminality. And why Sherman‘s pictures retain their own power is, similarly, a bit of a mystery of its own although undoubtedly helped by her ability to capture the essence of the stylised style she’d affectionately parodying but without ever lapsing into any obvious clichéd overstatement.

As already suggested, I’m not sure that any of Sherman‘s subsequent series of works quite hit an equivalent peak of perfection but to her great credit she does repeatedly get very close and indeed consistently comes up with impressively interesting twists on the same themes of presentation and representation. So, whether the characters that she’s portraying are society ladies who like to lunch, fading flapper filmstars, figures from some freaky fantasy fairy story book, historical horrors, creepy clowns or any of the other archetypes into whose shape she chooses to shift, she also seems to manage to do so with a sophisticated subtlety that continually challenges the audience to view her creations as real people with a more than skin deep depth of personality. The fact that it’s possible to exit the exhibition not having a clue what Sherman herself actually looks like, despite having spent the past hour or so in her exclusive company, confirms not just the skill of her impersonating abilities but also the intriguing manner in which she continues probe the possibilities, push the boundaries and subvert the stylisations of the whole portrait-self-portrait genre.

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