Solely made up of works from the Norwegian Astrup Fearnley Museum’s collection, the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) recently opened a fascinating exhibition dedicated to Cindy Sherman (born 1954) and Richard Prince (born 1949), offering a unique insight in how the two US artists use mass consumer images to represent gender identity.
The Marlboro man as the ultimate male figure. And the Madonna or the housewife as the ideal woman. Both Prince and Sherman play with these preconceived notions of identity by appropriating their visual representations in their art.
“Appropriation is not anything new,” explains Gunnar Kvaran, the director of the Astrup Fearnley museum. “Duchamp and Warhol also appropriated imagery from mass culture. But the way these two artists use it, is completely different: Prince directly using the image of the man, and Sherman using the idea of the stereotype of the woman.”
Since the 1950s, the cigarette brand Marlboro has used the cowboy to seduce the American masses into smoking. The campaign was so successful that the image of the ultimate American horse-riding male became automatically associated with the brand. Prince was interested in these strong images and re-photographed them for his famous Cowboy Series, taking out the advertisement’s text and framing the photos as art. The ads had no author. They were publicised in Life magazine, which could be considered a public space, and therefore, the artist reasoned they could
be used by anyone. Richard Prince is very direct with his appropriations, rephotographing photographs while editing details, and he deliberately plays with questions of ownership. One of the latest works at the MALBA exhibition is a blown-up image taken from the social networking service Instagram. A selfie, one that’s clearly not of the artist himself, portraying a scarcely dressed girl in a sexy pose. Without the permission of the people who post their pictures on Instagram, the artist – as with the Marlboro photos in Life magazine – takes their images, presents them and sells them as his art, suggesting that by including a comment with the image, he is editing it. This collection, Portrait Series, prompted a scandal in 2014 and 2015, when the works were first shown – mostly because he had just ‘robbed’ the images. The question Prince poses is as interesting as it is complex: once an image is ‘out there,’ to whom does it belong?
Cindy Sherman also uses imagery that is already ‘out there,’ while appropriating visual mass conceptions about women onto herself. She dresses up and uses prostheses to transform herself into different types of women in society. Sherman’s early series, Untitled Film Stills, from 1977-1980 have become iconic in this sense. In these photos she (re) created movie scenes, in which stereotypical women are portrayed. At the new MALBA exhibition, two photos from this series are presented. Throughout her career she has continued to embody different ideas of the woman, as can be noted from the photos of Sherman as a patriotic Midwestern Republican, a Renaissance Madonna figure, or a kaftanwearing Californian middleaged neo-hippie.
Sherman shares her physical transformations on Instagram. Just like Prince, she comments on contemporary culture, where the image of the self has taken centre-stage. Yet, instead of taking someone else’s Instagram image and selling it through a gallery for US$90,000, she comments on the same phenomenon, criticising it by deforming herself, producing uneasiness or even repulsion, making you reflect upon this need for sharing all these self-portraits online.
Both Sherman and Prince were considered part of the ‘Pictures Generation,’ a term that emerged from the title of a 2009 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, which included, amongst others, these two artists. Aside from being part of the same group, Sherman and Prince were also once lovers. A disparate rise in fame is said to have led to the end of the relationship, and makes comparing even more inviting.
“The exhibition is set up in such a way that they can be seen as two independent shows, as both artists have an autonomous discourse,” Kvaran explains. “Yes, they were both part of the Pictures Generation, but we decided to separate the works on purpose to avoid comparison.”
The common denominator in this exhibition is appropriation and the fascination for identity imagery in mass culture. Yet Sherman takes the idea of different types of women, as perceived by mass culture, and transforms into these types. The photo becomes a mere tool in showing the end result of the process of becoming another kind of woman – representative of society and recognisable as such. As with Prince, Sherman’s approach is ambiguous, presenting a new image that invokes both appeal and disgust at the same time. There is appreciation for the impressive seductive character of consumer and media imagery, and at the same time there is a clear critique.
Prince appropriates very literally, and by doing so, he shifts the focus from gender identity to ownership. It’s also an interesting question, but placed next to Sherman’s processbased work, it comes across as an easy trick. A trick which appeals and repulses at the same time, hence in line with the artist’s own position on mass culture. Aside from Prince picturing the man and Sherman the woman, one could perhaps regards their respective artistic approaches as typically male and female, direct and process-oriented, symbolised by the use of blue graphics for Richard Prince and red for Cindy Sherman.