“Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life” at The Broad, Los Angeles—ARThound interviews guest curator Philipp Kaiser
The Broad’s first special exhibition, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, up through October 2, 2016, explores the art world’s long-reining chameleon of identity, Cindy Sherman. Representing all phases of Sherman’s four decade career, the exhibition features 120 of Sherman works, drawn primarily from the Broad collection, with a few key works from other lenders. Visitors are greeted with two massive floor-to-ceiling murals created by Sherman especially for The Broad, reproductions of images from her “Rear Screen Projections” from the early 1980’s. The show proceeds in loose chronological order and takes up almost all of the spacious first floor galleries. Highlights include a wonderful wall of Sherman’s well-known 8 x 10 inch black and white “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80) and, in a gallery featuring her classically composed “Historical Portraits,” there’s a lesser known Limoges porcelain tea set from the late 1980’s adorned with images of Sherman as Madame de Pompadour, Mistress of King Louis XV. Sherman’s only movie to date, “Office Killer,” the campy 1997 horror feature starring Molly Ringwald, plays in a small gallery. The exhibit concludes with Sherman’s newest work, created this year, shown in LA for the first time, which is inspired by silent film stars from nearly a century ago. On one hand, it is a rich survey of her work; on the other, it focuses on Sherman’s deep engagement with mass media, popular film, movie culture and the cinematic. What better place for these themes than LA, home of the movie industry.
There couldn’t be a more stunning backdrop for this exquisite tribute than the Broad itself, LA’s newest art museum, which opened in September 2015. Located in downtown Los Angeles on Grand Avenue, just next to Walt Disney concert hall, the Broad’s angular, honey-combed structure—the “veil”—and its striking central oculus, was designed by architects Diller, Scofido + Renfro, to the tune of $140 million. It showcases the 2,000 + contemporary artwork collection of philanthropists Eli and Edy Broad. At capacity at all times, the museum has become such an LA phenomena that its stand-by line has its own twitter account.
The Broads are Cindy Sherman’s most prolific collectors. She was the first artist that the couple collected in depth. At the June 2016 press conference for the show, Eli Broad recalled the first time that he and his wife encountered her work, at Metro Pictures in 1982. He was so impressed that he snapped up 20 photos, recalling they went “far beyond photography” and “reflected what was going on in society.”
Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director, explained that the couple essentially had a standing order for her work as it was created. “Their collection is the most comprehensive Sherman collection in existence, containing examples from every body of work she has made during her four decade career.”
Arthound jumped on the opportunity to interview guest curator Philipp Kaiser, former director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany and former senior curator of MOCA (Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art). The Swiss-born Kaiser works as an independent curator and art critic in Los Angeles and will curate the Swiss pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. In addition to putting together the most comprehensive exhibit of Sherman you are likely to ever see, Kaiser made sure the show’s finishing touches reflect LA culture too. Hollywood notables Jamie Lee Curtis, Molly Ringwald, John Waters, and others contributed to the audio tour (download the app online here.) The catalog features Sofia Coppola (who went to Cal Arts and wanted to be an artist) in a casual conversation with Sherman about Marie Antoinette and Sherman’s history portraits. Now, on to the conversation with Kaiser—
What is the origin of the title “Imitation of Life” and who picked it?
Philipp Kaiser: Cindy picked it. I encouraged her to go for a cinematic theme and she came up with this title which refers to the 1959 Douglas Sirk melodrama with Lana Turner. Identity is at the core of this film. On a formal level, Hitchcock and Sirk, were very influential directors. All the artists of the 70’s—the so-called pictures generation—were looking at these filmmakers. Douglas Sirk was a big fascination for David Salle too. What artists liked about Sirk was the theatricality of his work. For example, whenever there was an outdoor scene, it was lit in blue and the indoor scenes were yellow. Sirk came from theater and, when you look at Cindy Sherman’s “Rear Screen Projections,” you see she appropriated these from film. Hitchcock, of course, relied on theatricality.
Was this your first time working with Cindy Sherman? What surprised you about her personality?
Philipp Kaiser: Yes. We had a lot of interaction—this is all collaboration, ideas going back and forth and they are then honed. The ideal exhibition is a perfect collaboration between artist and curator. She’s very insightful and there’s such depth but I found her very funny too in her own special way.
Explain the flow of the show.
Philipp Kaiser: It’s loosely chronological beginning in the first gallery with the fashion photographs from 1983 to 1993 and then you go back to 1982 in the next gallery and there’s a sense of this back and forth throughout. When you get to the dark room we’ve created, you see it respects the different series and the narrative of her career but it was very important for me to show how much these series are linked together and to point out connections. Sometimes, when things are shown separately, you lose sight of this. There are very interesting ‘hinge pieces’ in between the different series that link them.
Can you give an example of a hinge piece?
Philipp Kaiser: There are many fashion photos that serve that purpose. In one of the last galleries, there’s this piece that she made as a commission, with an outfit provided from the Chanel archives. You see so clearly that this Chanel landscape has a lot to do with the society portraits and with the older ladies who are the supporters of these museums and institutions. Also, when you look at her “History Portraits” from the late 1980’s which were created when she was so successful, that next thing she did was these big landscapes of vomit. That’s a very reactive series.
How much does she rely on digital technology to enhance her images?
Philipp Kaiser: She started to use digital technology in 2000 and you can really see this in the Chanel piece where the backdrop is very artificially constructed. The background landscapes are photos that she took on the island of Capri and in Iceland in 2010 during a volcanoic eruption. She manipulated these and gave them a painterly feel. The clowns on the green walls, which look like a green screen, are obviously made with digital backdrop. She still does that─she take pictures and uses them for backgrounds but they are digitally manipulated.
Is she doing all this work herself with no assistants?
Philipp Kaiser: Yes, she prepares herself and takes the photographs herself but has help manipulating the photos from young, computer savvy kids.
How did you emphasize her rootedness in the LA film culture and Hollywood?
Philipp Kaiser: From the very beginning, it was clear that this presentation in LA, the heart of the filmmaking industry, had to offer a very distinct perspective on the work. This is the first big Sherman show in Los Angeles since MOCA’s 1999 retrospective and it was created for LA. This exhibition starts in 1975 and goes all the way up to 2016 and you can see the influence of film from the very beginning. When you look at the gigantic murals reimagined from her “Rear Screen Projections” and at her “Untitled Film Stills” series from early in her career, you see her fascination with movie culture and the cinematic in terms of the narrative on many levels. Her work is about representation and mass media and representation is most powerful in the movies, when different roles are played. And it all ends with her newest works, inspired by the stars of the last century’s silent era.
Has she shifted her position about whether or not her works are autobiographical or not and if so what do you think might account for that?
Philipp Kaiser: I don’t think they are autobiographical. Of course, it’s always Cindy Sherman but it’s not about the self portrait. She’s not suggesting that there is a real Cindy Sherman; it’s more about the hall of mirrors Cindy Sherman showing herself in a play of roles. One day, she appropriates the role of desperate housewife and the next day, it’s another role. That’s how identity is being constructed and tested.
And these are parts of herself or parts of a broader cultural self?
Philipp Kaiser: The work is about the cultural self. A lot of people ask me if Cindy Sherman’s work is so successful because of the selfie culture and I would say it’s just the opposite. Seflies are about narcissism and about showing off your body or some feature. Her work is about something else, cultural stereotypes in mass media. What is really interesting about the new work is that that the society portraits are about aging. This is the reality of the artist getting older and that’s very interesting. It’s self-referential and she will talk about herself but it’s not about her.
Do you view the arc of her work as a search for the self? Early on, it didn’t reveal much—it was a tightly controlled act of putting on all these other faces and experimenting with them. Later, it seems that she is coming more to terms with herself and with the aging process.
Philipp Kaiser: I wouldn’t say it’s about a search for the true self but showing off how many selves there are and how constructed we are. It’s also about how we find our identity, or define ourselves, in fashion which you see clearly in the fashion photographs. The history photos all address representation on a different level─they talk about history, class, aging. There are many different levels. It’s not a search for identities but rather an acknowledgement or acceptance that our identities are pluralistic. It’s also very interesting that in her latest work Cindy Sherman is posing as a silent screen actress. So the work gets older as she gets older. These are very self-confident portraits.
Do you think she will move away from these photo series that she is so closely associated with?
Philipp Kaiser: She’s mentioned several times that she wants to work on a second movie and that’s very interesting. Her first movie, “Office Killer” (1997), is here in the show.
How has she influenced younger generations of photographers?
Philipp Kaiser: She uses photography but actually her work is very performative and what we see in the gallery is a photograph or an artwork but the process to get there is performative. Many artists can relate to this post feminist deconstructive aspect where she really takes things apart. She has been highly influential for two or three generations of artists now.
Details: The Broad
Admission to The Broad is free, but admission to the special exhibition “Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life” is $12 for visitors over 18. The show runs through October 2, 2016. It is recommended that visitors book tickets in advance online to ensure a specific entry date and time. For more information about ticketing: https://ticketing.thebroad.org/
If you go…Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room, a mirror-lined chamber housing a dazzling and seemingly endless LED light display. This experiential artwork has extremely limited capacity, accommodating one visitor at a time for about a minute, and requires a separate free timed same-day reservation which ticket holders are able to reserve, pending availability, after arrival at the museum at a kiosk in the center of the lobby. Time in the Infinity Mirrored Room cannot be reserved in advance of your visit. Due to the limited capacity of the installation, not all visitors are able to experience it, as the queue for viewings usually books up early in the day. This installation will be on view through October 2017.
Details: Travel to/from Los Angeles in one day
Air Transportation: Both Alaska Air and American Airlines operate nonstop flights from Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport to LAX. ARThound departed from Santa Rosa at 6 a.m. on an Alaska Air flight ($109 each way) and arrived in Los Angeles at 7:30 a.m. I flew back at 8:30 p.m. and arrived in Santa Rosa at 10:15 p.m. Short-term parking was $14 at the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport.
Los Angeles ground transportation is easy: Upon arriving at LAX, I walked outside the terminal and took an “LAX FlyAway” bus from the curbside for $9 to Union Station. FlyAway buses depart every hour and go to all terminals and take roughly one hour to get to Union Station. At Union Station, I took the metro. I purchased a TAP card and loaded it up with $10 for the day, which left me with plenty of money for my next visit to LA. I used the online LA Metro Trip Planner to pre-plan getting from Union Station to The Broad and from the Broad to the Getty Center in Santa Monica and back to LAX in the early evening. Each metro ride is $1.75 and transfers to buses are allowed. I took the Metro Red Line to Pershing Square Station, exited and walked roughly .25 miles to The Broad, and arrived just before it opened.
I departed The Broad at noon in order to also visit the Getty Center in Santa Monica. Using public transportation required a metro ride and a bus ride and took almost 1hour and 45 min. I arrived at the Getty Center at roughly 2:40 PM which gave me 2.5 hours to see two shows before their 5:30 p.m. closing time. I saw Cave Temples of Dunhuang (closes Sept 4) and Robert Maplethorp: The Perfect Medium (closes July 31). The Dunhuang exhibit featured three scale replica caves, a virtual immersive 3-D experience that guides you into the 8th century Mogao site, and an exhibit of documents and artifacts discovered in the Library Cave along with paintings and sculptures from other caves that shed light on the history of Buddhism.
On the way back from the Getty, I took a 5:30 p.m. bus from the Getty Center to downtown Santa Monica and caught the Santa Monica FlyAway to LAX, arriving just in time for my flight. The Santa Monica FlyAway will be discontinued effective September 6, 2016 which means a taking an alternative route. Ample bus service is available.
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