Few phrases in the English language are as instantly depressing as the one that describes the popular contemporary concern studied by narcissists in evening classes: identity politics. Ouch. Just hearing the words sends an avalanche of motorway rubble tumbling down onto the human soul.
It’s not that the search for identity is in itself a terrible or even a regrettable pursuit. We all have issues with identity — how can we not? We enter the world not knowing who we are, and we leave it little the wiser. It’s a given of the human condition that we will never fully know ourselves. To make this universal concern the subject of endless, tedious, circuitous examination, however, is an entirely contemporary foible: me-thinking for me-times.
Unfortunately, artists today are particularly guilty of overconsidering this hopeless topic. It’s as if some important cog in the condition of being a contemporary artist drives this relentless search for me-hood. True, it can, occasionally, result in some useful signage. When you see an exhibition banner fluttering outside the Royal Academy advertising a show entitled Aware: Art Fashion Identity, you know exactly where to head: in the opposite direction. But do we really need our warning signs to be this huge?
Of course, identity issues have nourished the art of the past. Rembrandt would never have embarked on his momentous series of costumed self-portraits without a powerful need to scratch the itch. Picasso’s Guernica is a greater painting for being, on one of its many levels, a rumination on its maker’s sense of Spanishness. These, though, are cases in which identity matters have enlarged the artist’s vision, not defined it. The problem with most contemporary tacklings of the territory is that the quest for identity is all there is. Which brings us, firmly, to Cindy Sherman.
Sherman is the undisputed Queen of Artistic Identity Politics. Her entire career appears to have been spent exploring her own self and that of many others. Ever since she debuted on the art stage at the beginning of the 1980s with a series of role-playing self-portrait photographs in which she successfully turned herself into a one-woman cast of emoting B-movie actresses, she has rooted her art in the quicksands of the modern me, the one that imagines it can become whatever it wants, if it can afford the Botox and the gastric bands.
Imelda Marcos has lots of shoes; Cindy Sherman has lots of selves. All of whom she has fashioned skilfully for herself out of inventive costume changes, clever applications of make-up and cunning photography. After three decades of thinking up new identities, she has now created enough different Cindys to populate a Cecil B DeMille crowd scene. Alas, she has also inspired countless others to examine their own ids more intently.
All of which would be most unfortunate were it not for the fact that Sherman is, unlike most of her acolytes, an artist of true talent, a visionary, even, who certainly deserves her frequent appearance in lists of the most influential contemporary artists, and so on. As the first of the me-artists, she was a bona fide pioneer. Yet that is not the best thing about her. The best thing about her is that, the deeper we journey into her career, the clearer it becomes that we have, in fact, been getting her wrong. Sherman never has been what any of the Cindys appear to be.
The main difference between her and her followers is one of focus. Her followers are interested chiefly in themselves. Sherman, however, has always been more slippery than that, more deceitful and brilliant. Her true interest is in the power of art: the way it creates identity and shapes it; the magic with which it transforms the commonplace; the happenstance of it all; the poetry. She is as good as she is precisely because her version of me-art has never actually been about her.
A new show at the Sprüth Magers Gallery makes this more obvious than it has ever been, and is, once again, the handiwork of a commendably restless artist, keen to voyage in new directions. At first sight, from out in the street, through the gallery glass, it seems as if the space has been taken over by a tribe of giant Cindy Shermans, 10ft tall or more, all dressed up in different wacky costumes, who flank the doorways and patrol the walls. A particularly preposterous one seems to have run away from a medieval re-enactment, to which she wore her silliest troubadour costume. Another has escaped from an episode of The Addams Family, where she played a doomy society dame in a pre-Raphaelite dress. A third appears to be some sort of new-age exercise freak, posing in a fluffy and feathery leotard.
As you step into the gallery, you see that all these giant Cindys have in fact been pasted onto the walls on large sheets of wallpaper, and that they have behind them and around them a series of bucolic landscapes that feel vaguely French and 18th-century: the rococo era is being reworked for the age of Shrek.
By dispensing with the frames that usually segregate her transformations, and by embedding herself so seamlessly in the walls, Sherman doesn’t just confront you with her new assortment of identities, she surrounds you with them. It’s an effective enlargement, the cleverest development in her work for several years.
And, while the immediate and excellent effect of this new presentation is to involve you more viscerally in her imagery, it is, as always with Sherman, the impish characterisation of the assembled Cindys that constitutes the main subject here. The certainty hit me, as soon as I entered, that she was finally tackling something that has long constituted her own personal time bomb: the process of ageing. Having played so many types of modern woman in her art, having distorted her own identity in so many contemporary directions, having toyed so relentlessly for so long with her own youthful looks, she is finally dealing with the inescapable human dynamics of growing old.
Never before has a Sherman cast appeared this vulnerable and fragile and faint. Dispensing, for once, with make-up, she confronts us with a set of pale, unadorned and scrubbed-up old maid’s faces that seem collectively to have avoided the sun by staying indoors. As with a set of etiolated house plants, the amplification of their size seems merely to amplify their slightness. It’s poignant stuff, but also surreally funny.
The show makes clearer than usual that her sense of humour is another of her under-celebrated qualities. Inside every Sherman characterette displayed here is a Buster Keaton dolefully demanding to be let out: a glum clown who remains balefully aware of their own inadequacy, no matter how flamboyantly they dress. I particularly enjoyed the crumpled nude Cindy with the lollipop red nipples and the sagging home-made merkin who takes the place of a Venus statue in the wings of a plush 18th-century French gazebo. Buster Keaton playing Cindy Sherman playing Venus: now that really is inventive.
When it comes to identity-duelling, photography has long been the artistic weapon of choice, as a pint-sized selection of surrealist imagery from 1900 onwards seeks to prove in a show called Convulsive Beauty, at James Hyman Photography. It’s too small an event to make any substantial points about the appetite for beautiful distortion in the image of women, but, as long as you are not expecting any of the thinking here to join up, there are tiny sights to enjoy and recoil from.
Anna Fox’s spooky series of Country Girls appears to show a set of dead females littered about the American countryside, as if a rural serial killer were on the loose. It takes a closer look to recognise the victims as shop-window dummies. An eerie bundle of bodies hidden under a cloth on the floor turns out to be John and Yoko enacting their Happening in a Sack in 1969, while those spindly and misshapen personages that Brassaï photographed in 1930 are minute Picasso sculptures, brought to life and enlarged by the black magic of photography.