Francesca woodman / cindy
sherman :

(defy depict describe

despair decline) 

san francisco museum of modern art exhibitions
woodman: November 5-February 2012  
  sherman: July 14 -October 8, 2012



The difference between the photography

based art of Francesca Woodman and that of

Cindy Sherman is the difference between

cemetery and circus; depth and superficiality;

the smell of sweat and the smell of grease

paint. Both address the perception of reality

and identity with vastly differing means and

intention, and their results, their oeuvre,

present a challenge to the viewer to either

gawk at freak show embracing the novel, the

oddity; shed tear and raise glass at funeral or

wake or to dismiss the entire enterprise as, in

the case of Woodman, personal self-

indulgence, a peek into the process of great

nascent potential cut short by suicide at age

22, or Sherman’s indulgences joyfully

misrepresenting self as others, with varying

degrees of success throughout a long and

celebrated career.

There is great sympathy for the “tragedy” of Francesca Woodman, her family of practicing myopic artists, lack of (perhaps) the necessary care and attention due any child, her severe emotional issues and, of course, the seemingly inevitable leap to her death in Manhattan in 1981. That sympathy, a sentiment fueled by “knowing” gets in the way of appreciating her brief but powerful output uninfluenced by her end, which is a bit like saying look at SUNFLOWERS and not think of Van Gough’s ear, or Caravaggio’s bacchanalian nature or his florid death or try to consider Carl Andre’s tremendous post-modernist contributions without thinking of the circumstances surrounding the violent demise of his wife.
The trappings of the artist, biography, philosophy, lifestyle, and eccentricities understandably “shadow”, to a degree, any absolute and serious consideration of the remaining plastic artifact for better and for worse.
The merit of an individual or body of work is greatly influenced by what we know or think we know of its creation and the circumstances around the perceived processes of the artist, always absent yet attached to the material; dissected and dragged along by our excitements and expectations seeking a “full aesthetic experience” in the gallery tour, the i-pod description, the convincing banter and conspiratorial tone of the volunteer museum docent; in the pages of Art in America or The National Enquirer , what’s the difference? Obscuring is obscuring, high or lowbrow, nationally endowed or cafe table gossip, we are left with great forests and few trees.

If Cindy Sherman were

you mother:

what shade of lipstick

would she wear,

how funny is her hair,

how about her

teeth? is her attitude

delicious? is there

a malignant gaze in her

eyes? (if not,

why not?)

If you were Francesca

Woodman: from

under what shadow are


emerging? into what

corner are you

absorbed? are you naked?

are you


are you glad to be

sad? (if not,

why not?)

The idea of provocation, that art must be

provocative to have worth, that there be

elements of the confrontational and, perhaps,

a bit mean-spirited is essential to considering

Cindy Sherman and her genre of physio-

psychic embodiment, dress up, make believe,

fashion and fantasy as mirror of personality

and reality.

Her body is a cultural document

in the way that Pat Olezko’s is “an art

playground” or Carolee Schneemann’s or

Marina Abramovic’s may be viewed as

battleground of social, class and gender

issues. It is no mistake that she is coupled

here with women artists primarily active in

performance art because at the core, her work

is performance, which can also be argued as

seminal to the work of Woodman as well.


SHERMAN: ” who are you

when you think I am someone


The survey of her exhibition at SFMOMA (july 14-oct 8, 2012) allows a mapping of her work, (both telling as well as disturbing) development and embrace by the arts establishment, beginning with small modest gems of her early output of complete, beautifully rendered black and white images that recall the dissected stark and foreign familiarity of reality of an Arbus sans the deliberate or coveted “freak show” element. What is remarkable about this series of work is the great care and balance of image content, execution and quality of printmaking, truly superior in many ways to what would follow, but who among us has the courage to say “no” to the demands of career and expectation? Admittedly, her goals have remained constant, that is undeniable : to shock, entertain and mesmerize; to transport self and viewer into space safe enough to gawk and marvel.

There is great complexity in this period in that the relationship seems more authentic, more intimacy between subject and viewer; there is a movie going on and it’s upfront and personal in the immediacy and directness of black and white; it works or they bomb…these work. There is no interference of color or glamor; of grimace, nod-wink or distorting prosthetics or the other distractions that mar her later work. These simple poignant images demand a perfection of execution lacking in current work and is rarely revisited except, perhaps, in 1981’s group of often soft-focus reclining, musing, fretting teens, housewives and tortured dames; they seem authentic and are presented without judgment, no snickering or snorting at feeble attempts to simply “be”.

Yes, she can look like a Vanderbilt, soccer mom, nut job, hippie, secretary, body part, groupie, spinster, wastrel, clown, man, courtesan or saint, and so what? The soul of the thing has long been lost and has been reduced to a lavish dress up party, the inside joke and the ability of an actress without a script to successfully embody the surface of the perception of another without engaging its soul. She does it well; she does it consistently and has no reason to assess nor embrace that loss, though she’s mentioned that the portraits of murder, disembowelment and “more disgusting” pictures developed as a reaction to her “guilt” after being accepted/collected so quickly. Oh well.

The problems surrounding Woodman have been mentioned, mainly the insertion of sentiment onto distinctly non-sentimental images created by a fiercely unsentimental artist. Her independence, grounded by an aesthetic, a confidence of style, subject and working technique remain a joy to behold thirty years after her death as we peek into timeless grim fairy tales all too real despite their cloak of hiding or emerging or disappearing all together.

WOODMAN: ” …don’t look at

me; please look at me…”

Silence guides her work. The spaces in her spare environments embrace the emotional landscape and clear way for an uncomfortable rendering of familiar yet frightening feelings, usually coolly portrayed by her own naked or loosely clothed body. She, like Sherman, consciously provoke and seeks to shock, to be apart from the crowd (art students and nascent art -photography strictures) to explore just how far the depiction of “self” might go and lead; into dreams and demons, freedom and hopefully, fame.
I don’t see her comfortable, but restless, thrilled by the technical discoveries of primitive video, performance and slow shutter speeds; of juxtaposition and time and motion studies; she is depicting the hallucination and is being claimed by it as well in rough, magical images that survive as glimpses of simultaneous private universes, individual to each of is, unique to Woodman, witnessed by her survivors.
Finally, Sherman is.
Woodman was/is and remains:
Our choice is to pander either to an anti-intellectual, wholly cynical interpretation of “the importance of being” (impotence ?) a’ la Sherman and pop cultures’ short circuitry through reduction of our best impulses or to empathize with Woodman’s attempt to make lasting an ephemeral experience universally witnessed though rarely claimed.
Carl Heyward
is a writer/ artist living in san francisco
his BUS PORTRAIT (distortion) SERIES and MIXED-MEDIA paintings and collage will be exhibited in Lecce, Italy curated by Monica Lisi April 2012.