Course Description

This course is meant to be a space for you to examine and deepen your relationship to the field and your own practice through readings, discussions, and presentations.  The readings are meant to expand your perspective on the field of jewelry and metalsmithing, to define its particularities and concerns in relation to the discourses of the contemporary art world.

Together we will explore a series of seminal theoretical texts, seeking ways to relate them to our own practice.  Through these texts we will encounter a series of themes and historical perspectives that are crucial to the field of jewelry, while also delving into fields and areas of inquiry, that have not commonly been related to our field, but perhaps should or could be.  Our aim is to get a historical and interdisciplinary perspective on where we are as artists/makers today, how we got here and where we could go from here. The course aims to bring up critical questions on why we make, whom we make for and the meaning of our practice beyond the studio and the jewelry and metals world.

This is a chance to practice your skills in connecting theory, reading and writing to your work and to build a vocabulary and ground of reference around your ideas, interests and intentions. It’s a chance to take part in an intense discourse around your field, which you might be asked to do many times in the future of your career.

The Wednesday meetings will adopt the form of a reading/talking circle. Your role in the group is important and the success of our conversations will be based on your participation and engagement. We will all take turns in presenting and leading the discussion and also examine what “research through practice” might mean for us, by exploring some ways of connecting theory and making. 

Dec 9, 2009

Presentation on Cindy Sherman

Erin Scully
Seminar 11.4.09
Laura Mulvey reading “Fetishism and Curiosity” Chapter 5: Cosmetics and Abjection: Cindy Sherman 1977-1987 (pp. 65-76)

Cindy Sherman was born in 1954, as the youngest of five children, in New Jersey but grew up on Long Island, New York. She was not into art at a young age like most artists, and neither were her parents. When she went to college in Buffalo, NY she started in painting but realized that she “said all she could say through painting” and “gave it up” and took up photography. She graduated in 1976 and her “Untitled Film Stills” series transformed and became known the following year. She started to photograph herself in the roles of actresses in B-movies. They are not self-portraits. She intentionally titles them “Untitled” and numbers them to remove them even further from the “portrait” as well as to not be associated in self-portraits of “Cindy Sherman the person”.
“Sherman uses herself as a vehicle for commentary on a variety of issues of the modern world: the rold of the woman, the role of the artist, and many more. It is through these ambiguous and eclectic photographs that Sherman has developed a distinct signature style. Through a number of different series of works, Sherman has raised challenging and important questions about the role and representation of women in society, the media, and the nature of the creation of art”.


*** The following ideas have been compiled together and taken from the chapter. I won’t use quotation marks for everything, but all the credit belongs to Laura Mulvey. ***

A quote from Sherman:
“When I was in school I was getting disgusted with the attitude of art being so religious or sacred, so I wanted to make something which people could relate to without having to read a book about it first. So that anybody off the street could appreciate it, even if they couldn’t fully understand it; they could still get something out of it. That’s the reason [why] I wanted to imitate something out of the culture, and also make fun of the culture as I was doing it.”

Sherman is not a photographer, but an artist who uses photography. As her work developed, between 77 and 87, a metamorphosis took place. Apparently easy and accessible post-modern pastiche underwent a gradual transformation into difficult, but still accessible, images that raise serious and challenging questions for contemporary feminist aesthetics. In the early 70s the Women’s movement claimed the female body as a site for political struggle with the rise in feminism, debates of abortion rights, sexuality and oppression, and representation of the female body. These theoretical and political aesthetics affected artists and the representation of the female body in art came to a sort of crisis.
Feminine theorists turned to pop culture and artists turned to theory, and Sherman concentrated on the portrayal of the female body, which was not a sign of regression, but of re-representation. Her work changed over the ten year span to see a change in style and a maturity while staying true to her feminine narrative.
Her earliest work in the late 70s was in black and white, all numbered shots eventually titled “Untitled Film Still” #_ ... These photos reference the 50s post-modern era, neo-realism; evoking the past while denying the reference of history. “Nostalgia is selective memory and its effect is often to draw attention to its repressions, to the fact that it always conceals more than it records”. In these photos she is made up with her hair combed back and wearing heels and respectable yet wearing eroticised clothing. All seemingly 50s “carefully ‘put on’ and ‘done’”. She reveals a sort of nostalgic unease in the vulnerability portrayed through the gestures and facial expressions.
The viewers of these images are put into a slow wave of understanding; first they can identify with the image, then realize it is not in fact an actual film still, then the realization that the woman in the photo is actually Sherman herself, portraying a character, then as in cinema, the viewer marvels at the illusion created which then destroys the original credibility. “The lure of voyeurism turns around like a trap, and the viewer ends up aware that Sherman, the artist, has set up a machine for making the gaze materialize uncomfortably in alliance with Sherman, the model”. Thus since this was all a set up, the viewer can realize that there was no life to the “story” that was depicted, before or after the photograph is taken.
In 1980 she made color photographs depicting closer shots of the face, exploring the masquerade of femininity’s interior/exterior binary opposition: a centerfold style photograph with a figure lying on a bed or sofa, in a thoughtful position or in one that would seem like a photographer “captured” a moment of silent reverie or contemplation, exposing the feminine vulnerability in a closed-door type setting. The eyes of the model gaze into the distance, while her clothes are sometimes revealing parts of the body, “unknowingly”. “These photographs reiterate the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of femininity”. Soft edges, blurred background to foreground, the model is not in stark contrast to linear backgrounds as in the earlier work.
In 1983 her next series made major changes, commenting on the ridiculousness of the fashion industry and in response to a commission to do a spread for Artforum magazine. She stated “I picked out some clothes that i wanted to use. I was sent completely different clothes that I found boring to use. I really started to make fun, not of the clothes, but much more of the fashion. I was starting to put scar tissue on my face to become really ugly”. She used harsh lighting, created the illusion of heaviness in the model’s positioning and unflattering poses, exaggerating angles and awkwardnesses of the female body that the fashion industry plays up.
Her final two series in this reading became more grotesque and disturbing, while ending with a series that completely removed the body, focusing on bodily fluids and residues that the cosmetics industries make products to hide or conceal or clean up. These photos also were printed significantly larger than her first series of black and whites. They were so large that when you entered the space in the gallery, you could do nothing but stare at them, searching for any sign of the form, you were immersed in the photo. For example, images of decaying food and vomit reference the anorexic woman.
In this reading theories of fetishism are used to understand some of her work.
Freud’s theory of fetishism “demonstrates that the psyche can sustain incompatible ideas at one and the same time through a process of disavowal. So switching back and forth between visual duping, followed by perception of the duping mechanism, a willing suspension of disbelief followed by a wave of disillusion... a viewer can feel almost physically, and almost relish, the splitting open of the gap between knowledge and belief”. In the full spectrum of the 10 years of work, when the viewer reaches the final photographs of disintegration and only reluctantly recognizes the content for what it is, the art aspect of Sherman’s work returns... and their place on the gallery walls affirms their status, just as the viewer is about to turn away in disbelief. Sherman’s work bears witness to the photograph’s ability to mean more than what it seems to represent.

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