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Denison professor talks Cindy Sherman’s feminism –– or lack thereof

Critically acclaimed photographer Cindy Sherman once said, “my work is what it is, hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work. But I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bull**** about feminist stuff.”

Sherman has been admired over the course of her artistic career for her comments on social roleplaying and sexual stereotypes as a female in society through her “disguised” self-portraits. But is she truly a feminist icon?

Sheilah Wilson, an assistant professor in studio art and queer studies at Denison University, will attempt to answer that question Tuesday when she discusses Sherman’s work and ideology at the Wexner Center for the Arts’ event “Cindy Sherman As Feminist Question Mark.”

A photograph from Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” called Untitled #122, 1983, where she employs makeup, costumes, lighting and scenery to present herself as generic art house and B-movie stars. | Credit: Courtesy of Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures, New York.

“I saw her work as more problematic as I got older,” Wilson said. “I feel more annoyed by her lack of political stance, and wonder about the systems her work perpetuates, where at the beginning I thought of her as interrogating those systems.”

Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada and having taught studio art, primarily photography, at Denison University for seven years, asking Wilson to do this talk “just seemed right” to Alana Ryder, the Wexner Center’s manager of public and university programs.

“It’s a chance to hear from a real local artist, her perspective and the influence [Sherman] has had,” Ryder said.  

Although she does not have a formal background in studying Sherman, Wilson said as a photographer and feminist it’s almost impossible to teach photography and not be informed by Sherman’s work.

Looking at Sherman’s work, however, Wilson said there was always one problem: the fact that Sherman never made it clear if she was a feminist or not.

“When my students say ‘my work isn’t political,’ that statement is, in and of itself, political,” she said. “And the politics it speaks to is one of privilege, and a certain laziness, in my opinion.”

Wilson stressed that her aim isn’t to dictate how anyone should respond and that people will connect differently to her work — as it should be.

“I want to be able to honor the historical importance of her work, while also allowing criticality and questions to enter into the discourse,” Wilson said.

During her gallery talk, Wilson said she will approach the topic in the only way she knows how: as an artist.

“I want to look at some of my own questions in relation to her images. Her work has been so heavily theorized in various ways,” Wilson said. “I would like to just take some time to respond to the work as it acts like a mirror for our society and what it means to be a reflective surface.”

Ryder expressed the importance of gallery talks and the value of the exchange.

“So often we’re in galleries alone. Here the barriers of professor-expert are torn down,” Ryder said. “When you go on these gallery talks you have a lot of time to interact, to ask questions.”  

Feminist or not, Wilson hopes to establish a conversation among the Ohio State community that extends beyond the Sherman exhibit.

“It seems particularly important now, in this political climate, to investigate the multiple ways that we can inhabit the gender woman, and certainly not end it at the cis, white, hetero gaze that Cindy Sherman provides,” Wilson said.

How she hopes to accomplish this?

“Being honest with my responses is a good place to start.”

Cindy Sherman as a Feminist Question Mark will take place at the Wexner Center, free of charge to all students and faculty, Tuesday at 1 p.m.

One comment

  1. I admire Sherman for resisting lesser artists who would want to drag her in political debate, a real artist knows that their work should speak for itself and that time is the only real measuring stick to place a value of one’s work.

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