Cindy Sherman has been lauded as an ‘artist of our time’ for her striking personal transformations. By Romy Ash.

Cindy Sherman on her lifelong love of dress-ups

When I meet Cindy Sherman, she’s wearing a moon boot. She has a broken foot, but at first it seems like a prop pulled from one of her images, the way it casts her as slightly askew.

Sherman has been described by a plethora of publications as one of the “most important”, “most influential” “artists of our time”. A collection of 69 photographs made in the dying years of the 1970s, called the Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), catapulted her to the centre of the art world, where she has remained for her career. In it, Sherman “inhabited the female tropes found in Hollywood films”. The “stills”, inspired by 1950s and ’60s Hollywood, were shot in grainy black and white to look like low-quality publicity material. They depict a series of heroines: the bombshell, the vamp, the housewife, the girl on the run. These women were all looking out of shot, as if something had just happened, or was about to happen to them. In 2011 one of her photographs, from the series shot after the “stills”, Untitled #96, sold for $US3.9 million, at that time, the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction.

Fresh in my mind when I meet Sherman is the exhibition I’ve just walked through, at GoMA in Brisbane. The central figure of a large photographic mural is a woman in an old blue floral dress. Draped over her shoulders is a feather-trimmed gauze throw. Her stockings are aubergine and she wears a moon boot. This woman towered over me, bigger than life size, a giant with unfashionable short hair and the hint of buckteeth. How Cindy Sherman – who is both the photographer and the model – has put her together, makes me feel uneasy, and yet I empathise with her. Her awkwardness and fashion faux pas feel familiar. The moon boot tops it off.

Sherman’s moon boot is less clunky than the one used in her mural. It’s a stylish moon boot. With her sleek blonde hair, T-shirt and jeans, she looks nothing like her image. I tell her I’m a little nervous, and I see the side of her that her friend Betsy Berne describes in the catalogue essay. Berne says, “Everyone in the art world talks about how nice Cindy is…” Here, sitting awkwardly across from one another, with matching sparkling waters, Sherman is at pains to make me feel comfortable.

“Oh, don’t – don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it,” she says smiling and motioning for me to begin. I ask her about her childhood and the compulsion to dress up.

She says, “I don’t remember ever going to a museum as a child growing up, even though we lived less than an hour from New York City. So, I had no idea what it meant to be an artist. I thought being an artist would be those people that do caricatures. You know, somebody sits in front of you and they do a little quick drawing. You pay them $5 or something. I just had no idea what it meant.

“I, like many little girls, played dress-ups, and my mother got me an old suitcase that I would just fill up. These clothes she would find at thrift stores. I remember – just kind of ratty old prom dresses or something. But I also remember discovering in our basement, in a closet, some old dress that I think was my great grandmother’s dress, that I think was from, like, the 1890s,” – she laughs – “or something like that. It was really old, and just obviously not the style of the time, the ’60s, when
I discovered it. So, I remember starting to play with that and dressing up like an old lady when I was 12 years old. And there’s a snapshot of me – maybe it’s in the catalogue – maybe it’s not in the catalogue? It’s in some catalogue – somewhere – of me dressed like an old lady, but I was walking around the block with my friend at the time, and we’re both these little old ladies.”

I’ve seen the image, though it’s not in the GoMA catalogue. It’s black and white: two strangely dressed children on a suburban street, looking almost grotesque. This story has the feeling of a personal myth about it. Later in the evening, at the opening of Sherman’s show, a politician gives the tittering crowd, concerned not with the halting speech but with catching the eye of the canapé server and the waiter refilling glasses of champagne, tropes from Sherman’s biography: the dress-up box, her childhood in Long Island, college and her move away from painting towards photography. The politician makes her life and work sound like a paint by numbers. This well-known biography is tantalising, in that it seems to explain something and yet tells us nothing at all. Who is Cindy Sherman?

Sherman herself says, “I mean, I was always into transforming myself. I think as a way to fit into my family really, because I was the youngest of five, and I was like – it was a lot of years between me and the next siblings. So yeah, I think I was always trying to become a different person. So even in college, even though I was studying painting initially, I would – and I don’t know if it was therapeutic or what – but I would go into my room, and just play with make-up and turn into... whatever. And my boyfriend at the time” – she means the artist Robert Longo – “was really the one who said, ‘You know, maybe you should start documenting what you’re doing right now, this is kind of interesting.’ ” This documentation would become the complete Untitled Film Stills (1977-80). It was the first in many Untitled series featuring Sherman disguised and transformed until, for a time in the late ’80s and ’90s, she leaves the images.

Sherman, now 62, speaks about this period. She says, “Years ago, when I did a series of rotting food, they did eventually get little maggots growing on them, in my studio. It was right before, or right after, that disgusting series. I forget exactly. I wanted to make more abstract-looking photographs with just sort of— some of it was fake blood, but also cans of soup, just making a sort of colour field of all this kind of stuff and eventually some of it started really rotting and that was really gross. But then of course I took more pictures of it because that was really cool, that it was all this gross stuff.”

She says, “When I was doing the Balenciaga pictures, they were sample sizes – for tall skinny models. I was even thinner than I am now, and I still couldn’t put on some of the jackets. I couldn’t even get them on. There was one that was so tight I finally got both arms into it, but then I couldn’t get out of it – because I couldn’t move my one arm to pull the sleeve out. I just couldn’t move my arms. It was so tight. The only way I could get out of it was I had to sit on the sleeve of that one, and yank my arm out and then I could get it off, but it was just like…,” she pauses, “torture.”

The Balenciaga pictures (2007-08), which are showing at GoMA, were made in conjunction with Vogue magazine. The GoMA exhibition is new and newish work, work where Sherman has returned to the frame. She wears outfits designed by Nicolas Ghesquière, for Balenciaga, in pictures that show women searching for the camera, their make-up clownish, their lipstick wider than their lips, their foundation pancake, their eyes made huge with eye shadow and sunglasses. They’re set against whirled backgrounds, abstracted from nightclub scenes.

Sherman – who always works alone in her studio – is contorting her body, and showing me the difficulty required to extract herself from the jacket. There was no one there to help her. I mutter an attempt at a joke – that being caught in the jacket must have felt like being tortured by the confines of patriarchy – and Cindy Sherman gives me such a look. She is in no way going to enter into a conversation about the patriarchy.

She continues talking about the clothes: “I remember there was a pair of boots that on the model in the photo came just past her knee, but on me they came way up here.” She motions to, basically, her crotch. She is tiny in the surprising way famous figures often are. As if their reputation, or their celebrity, might stand in for physical height.

I change the subject, ask her about her parrot Mister Frieda. I know parrots often imprint on a single person, so I’m wondering if her parrot is aggressive towards her lovers, the people who are closest to her.

“You know, it’s funny, because I know my parrot really loves me, and identifies with me, but he loves it when other people are around because he gets excited that it’s not just Mummy, it’s a new person here. So he can really bond with, like, a boyfriend. My cleaning lady, he’s really bonded with, so that when I come into the room I sometimes have to be careful because he winds up biting me. And I don’t quite understand it – whether I’m kind of like his mother, and he’s like, ‘Mum, no, go away.’ ” She flings her arms away. “ ‘I’m with my friend.’ I’m not quite sure, but he tends to bite me and not other people. He’s 25, 26 right now – I’ve had him for the whole time.”

I ask her where she found this enigmatic parrot that may, as yet outlive her. “In just a little store that had just opened up. My ex-husband was going there, or walking by, and when he came home he said, ‘This one cute little bird just climbed up my shoulder, and you should go check it out.’ So that’s what we got. It’s like a child – a child that never gets beyond age two and squawking, and throwing his toys down, and laughing at you picking it up, and throwing them back down. Makes a mess, yeah, yeah.”

In her Manhattan studio, she explains, she’s organised. She has boxes for “blonde wigs, red wigs, clown wigs and drawers with fake noses, fake teeth, fake nails, fake eyelashes, eyeballs. And then I collect a lot of mannequin heads, body parts, a lot of masks, and yeah – just anything weird. I like weird stuff.”

She says, “Yesterday I almost bought – and I’m sort of kicking myself for not actually buying it – we discovered, exploring the Glass House Mountains area, a little teashop that was just out of a movie, it was so spectacular. She also had all these antiques, and I almost bought this doily thing that you put on a table, that had embroidered koala bears on it. But I just thought, I don’t know what I would do. I mean, I love it – but would it be part of a piece, or would I just keep it, or who should I give it to?” She’s quite pained to have let the koala doily out of her grasp.

“I guess I just always see it as playing. I’m still playing around with these costumes and the wigs. And the prosthetics, so that I can, you know, try some fake tits with one picture, and then put them down and put on something else, and since, and maybe it has to do with why I like working alone, because I feel like no one has to see it if it doesn’t work out. I don’t have to show it to anyone. So I can – for every shot I could try on a different wig, or a different hat … it still is another series of experimentations, where I might just be sitting like this” – she poses – “or I might be sitting like that” – she poses again. “I move around, stand up or... there’s a lot of spontaneous experimentation and playfulness, and that’s really... I think it allows me to discover something that I didn’t know I was even looking for.”

Sherman’s blonde fringe is too long, and she looks out at me from under it. Later, smearing on pink lipstick in the public toilets – the shade is called Lickable – I can’t help but see the clown in it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2016 as "Cindy of a thousand lives".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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