Cindy Sherman's Sex Pictures are just not sexy enough. Well, they are not sexy at all, nor are they meant to be. The artist has said they are not erotic in the least. So why call them Sex Pictures? Just to mislead and frustrate people?
Sherman is famous for taking photographs of herself posed, made up or masked to assume a range of imaginary people. Her Sex Pictures, however – which are currently on view in an exhibition which compares them with the works of the surrealist Hans Bellmer and other such engineers of the grotesque – do not feature her. They don't feature any real human faces or body parts. Instead, Sherman poses and dismembers plastic dolls in a variety of violent scenarios. Horror rather than eroticism is the dominant tone – although some of her Sex Pictures parody pornography, as when a female doll kneels for the camera, and there is even love, as two doll faces lie passionately close.
Sex in art is not always about gratifying the viewer. It can obviously be about shock. Bellmer's surrealist dolls still shock long after they were created. But the physical nightmares and gross travesties Sherman creates in her Sex Pictures are not very shocking. There is none of the disturbing charge of eroticism Bellmer brought to his doll-games. With Sherman, there is no real sense of perversity. We are simply looking at dolls – two dolls made to be used as medical educational models, to be exact, that she arranged and pulled apart at will. Like much of her work, these photographs are beautifully lit and richly composed. Their beauty mutes the impact of their macabre imagery. Does that mean Sherman comes a cropper as a sex artist, that her art is just not … well, dirty enough?
They may not be sexy or shocking, but so what. Art can be serious. Sherman's Sex Pictures are contemplative works of art that (in that old cliche) "make you think". They create a distance between the hottest of subjects and the reasoning mind. Art here is a cooling shower, giving the onlooker a chance to consider the sheer strangeness of bodies, love and looking.
Sherman is a humorous, ironic – and perhaps wise – artist. Far from aping the shocking art of a Bellmer, she uses her doll parts to make us stand back and think about the power of fantasy and the will to play. Sex Pictures do not have to be sexy, after all. They can be metaphysical when they are made by an artist as subtle as Cindy Sherman.
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