Cinema, Self-Reference and Women’s Shifting Identities: Inside a New Cindy Sherman Retrospective

A new exhibition at The Broad Museum marks the first time in Los Angeles since 1997 in which legendary artist Cindy Sherman’s works are on display in a major museum show.

Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life features over 120 pieces ranging from photographs of sculptures to large-scale wall murals that span from as far back as 1975 to the present. The exhibit, which derives its name from a 1959 Douglas Sirk film, showcases Sherman’s connection to media and celebrity, pays particular attention to the role of film in the creation of female identity and raises questions centering on the construction of our values.

Much of Imitation of Life relies on the viewer’s familiarity with cinema. As with any work of art, Imitation of Life is not always universally accessible—but the scale of the artwork alone is a pretty impressive sight to behold. Employing the same techniques that Hollywood is often known for, Sherman uses large-scale projections resembling movie screens to generate a sense of scenes frozen in time.

As I walked through the first part of the exhibition, I was struck by the number of people taking photographs of themselves using Sherman’s mural as a backdrop and wondered if the artist would get a kick out of the concept. (If this were a formal art history presentation, now is the time I’d mention mise en abyme and watch my professor’s eyes roll.)

Another common theme in Sherman’s work is the concept of artist-as-model. Imitation of Life features Sherman’s face in many, if not all, of the works. (I was able to count one definite exception, and possibly two others in the ten-gallery exhibition.) Sherman manipulates her own likeness in a myriad of ways—and serves not only as photographer, model and director in her artwork but also provides her own costumes, props, hair styling and makeup.

Drawing from film and advertising media, Sherman’s Hollywood/Hamptons series replicates and expands upon female archetypes and their relationship to class, age, and background. Represented among the series are the bombshell, the businesswoman, the socialite, and many more. By portraying herself in these various incarnations, Sherman examines the role of the woman in Hollywood, in business, and at home.

Though in the past Sherman made efforts to hide herself in her works, as viewers we get the impression she’s become more comfortable with age, and this has influenced and informed her latest output. Some finished just this year, Sherman’s most recent works feature the artist as aging silent movie actors posing for the camera in possible attempts to recapture their youth. Are these former stars the same women from Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills collection? As the viewer we may never know, but there’s a hint of familiarity in each of the portraits.

These days, self-promotion is commonplace. A quick glance at a celebrity’s Instagram yields several dozen pictures of them in various poses. Imitation of Life both reflects and rejects the art of the selfie: By using makeup, wigs, and other tools to obscure her own ties to the piece, her photographs are transformed into universal portraits of women in a society which places extreme value on gender conformity. But how much of this commentary is intentional? And how much does artist intention matter anyway?

As Sherman famously declared in 1997: “Sometimes I wonder if maybe it’s all a lot of crap. Maybe the work doesn’t mean anything. When they’re writing about it, they’re just finding whatever to attach their theories to. I just happen to illustrate some theories.”

Imitation of Life runs through October 2. Tickets are $12 for adults and free for visitors 17 and under. 



Juliette Faraone studied digital media and film at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College before earning her BA in comparative literature from the University of Evansville. In addition to being an editorial intern at Ms., she is a staff writer for Screen Queens. Her work has also appeared at Lesbians Over Everything, Slant and The Zusterschap Collective. In her spare time, Juliette watches Netflix via Skype with her girlfriend and three cats.