Since she was a child, Cindy Sherman has been playing with disguise, artifice and camouflage. At first she would dress up to overcome her shyness, attending parties and gallery openings in New York in character, later documenting her transformations as an art form. She has played the 1950s screen siren, the centrefold pin-up, the Old Master sitter, the clown and the ageing Hollywood diva.
For her solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, Sherman has created a new body of work which harks back to her early black-and-white cut-out collages from the 1970s, manipulated and scaled up for the digital age. She has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, constructing and Photoshopping “profile pics” long before Instagram. Here she tells us how AI helped shape her latest series, why she started making ceramics during the pandemic, and what it means to be a woman in today’s art market.
The Art Newspaper: For your latest body of work you returned to some images you started making in 2010. What caused you to stop working on them and why did you to pick them up again?
Cindy Sherman: Initially I was thinking of ideas for making a kind of wallpaper image that would repeat parts of skin or parts of the face so it wouldn’t really be recognisable until you got close up to it. I eventually did something else for that particular project. Periodically, I would go back to this body of work, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with it. And I never did anything until I started thinking about this show, that maybe this work I had shot 13 years ago would work better in black and white.
So I was playing around with Photoshop to make things black and white, and then accidentally I left a part in colour. And that’s when I got the idea to have it look like it’s really collaged from black-and-white and colour. Then I realised that I wanted to start shooting some recent things. I had a new camera and I wasn’t expecting the resolution to be so much sharper, which is why I made the new images a little bigger, because you can see every little hair and pore on your skin.
In the catalogue for the show, you talk about “dreading being in front of the camera again”, having to compare yourself to your “13-year younger face”. It struck me that you’ve been scrutinising your face for nearly 40 years. How has that affected you?
That was one of the reasons taking parts of the face was helpful to me, because I didn’t feel like it was really revealing me. Even though the original photos are extreme close-ups, I’m not using the whole thing. I’m mixing them all up from different images. So I guess I didn’t really feel like it was that revealing. It’s like I’m unintentionally coming to terms with ageing.
I’ve always felt that bad movies, bad TV… is still really interesting because of what makes it bad
You’re active on Instagram and have been posting AI-generated images based on your own work. What are your thoughts on AI? Will you use it as a tool for your work?
I don’t know that I’d use it as a tool, but I’m getting ideas from it. I’m using Lensa, which is where you choose a group of images, typically selfies, and you feed them in to this program and they make avatars out of the selfies.
Generally, I think they are trying to make really attractive avatars of your face. But because the images that I’ve given them are these altered images, the results are just so much more surprising. Some of the characters seem to have two hands growing out of one arm or the face seems kind of chopped up. That partially inspired me for this new body of work. People were responding to my Instagram posts saying, “Your other work was so much better”, but I don’t consider [Instagram posts to be art] works. It’s just fun, I’m playing around.
This is the first body of work you’ve made since the pandemic. How did that whole period affect you?
I wasn’t able to work at all. I actually wound up buying a kiln and a potter’s wheel, and got into making ceramics, which was great, therapeutically. It was just so nice to use my hands again and to make objects that I could touch and then paint and cook. I loved that.
But in terms of my photography… it was tough for me in the beginning, because I had this big show coming up at the Louis Vuitton foundation in Paris, that I had spent years working on, and I never got to see it. I feel like hardly anybody saw it. So I felt kind of depleted. And I didn’t have any ideas for any future work.
Even doing this show, I didn’t really have an idea for what I was doing until late autumn or the early part of this year, even. I warned them. I said I might not be able to do this show. I really didn’t know what I was doing. It was a combination of what I went through during Covid, of it being very difficult to get back into thinking about working again.
And part of it was because I got older, and I also gained weight during Covid and I became very self conscious about that and how that was going to affect my work. Because in the past my body has always been relatively consistent: gradually ageing and gradually gaining a little bit of weight. But, like a lot of people did, I gained a bunch of weight. And then I was like, “wow, what kind of work am I going to do? An intentional series about being a heavier, older woman?” It took a while to figure that out.
I would say that your work is both implicitly and explicitly feminist, even if it can often be read as ambivalent. Has feminism been a driving force in your work?
I guess in the past there have been times when it was kind of a driving force, but not so much where I was consciously going, “Oh, I’m making feminist work”. It was more about issues that I felt affected me as a younger woman—the [portrayal] of women in film and TV shows: you’re a mother, you’re cooking, you’re taking care of the family. There were certain roles that I was starting to question—“do I really want to be like that?”. So yes, that informed the work, but I certainly wasn’t articulate about it.
Who, or what, would you say are the greatest influences on your work?
August Sander. I’ve always loved his portraits, his study of people. I feel like a lot of my work is about studying people. And Goya. But also a lot of film and television. I’ve always felt that bad movies, bad TV, even bad advertising is still really interesting because of what makes it bad. So I’d say the media is really the biggest influence.
Your work has sold for many millions at auction and you’re represented by one of the biggest galleries in the world. How do you feel about that level of commercial success?
Even though the art world has moved on—women are better served and artists of colour are better represented—it is still male dominated. I hear people complain about how there are so many mediocre women or artists of colour getting attention now. But how many years have we been witnessing a lot of mediocre male artists getting attention? Financially, yes, I’m doing well, but my male counterparts are still doing a lot better at auction. It’s going in the right direction, but it’s still a little bit of an upward battle. A lot of the art world is overhyped and overpriced anyway.
• Cindy Sherman, Hauser & Wirth, Limmatstrasse, Zurich, until 16 September