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Cindy Sherman was the subject, costume designer, make-up artist and photographer for the large-scale images showcased in a new retrospective. Detail: Untitled #466. Image courtesy of Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures, New York

Here’s looking at: Cindy Sherman ‘Head Shots’

What do William Shakespeare, Cindy Sherman, and the Modern Family TV series all have in common?

They all make art about the human condition. They all play off different characters in society, and the different characters that lurk within each and every one of us.

They all make art about social stereotypes, social pretensions, appearances, faking it, fragility, vulnerability, and the human capacity to laugh at oneself. They counter the universal with the particular.

Untitled #466. Image courtesy of Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures, New York

Ok, so maybe an American sitcom is stretching the category of art, but Shakespeare and Sherman are both celebrating their international recognition as artists this year. 2016 marks the 400-year commemoration of Shakespeare’s death. Sherman is the subject of a major exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art opening in May, following an earlier retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2012.

A MoMA retrospective is international code for “you’ve made it”, and the GoMA exhibition will help local audiences understand why Sherman is regarded as one of the most iconic artists of the contemporary era.

Head Shots (2000) is a series of photographic artworks featured in the GoMA show portraying one of Sherman’s most raw portraits of human ‘types’. The artist excels in turning attention to the human condition because the subject in her artworks is most often herself, or rather it is her body dressed up, made up, and staged to play a role in the theatre of life.

This kind of role-playing has been part of her art since the 1970s when she made a short video featuring herself as a cutout doll going through pages of a book of cutout clothes .

Untitled #402. Image courtesy of Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures, New York

Her trail-blazing, artist role-playing oeuvre developed through series of photographs that mimicked film stills, celebrity shots, history paintings, fashion shoots, and portraits of the most ordinary and extraordinary aspects of humankind.

Photographic technique is part of the art, but Sherman’s genius is in understanding the social practice of photography. She understands how people perform for the camera and how the situation of being photographed inherently documents the self as ‘image’.

This is particularly the case in Head Shots where the situation is that of standard studio portraits. All of the details about our persona become significant in the studio portrait where we ‘sit’ and ‘pose’ our image.

White nail polish, star spangled earrings matching an equally patriotic shirt – wispy hair that ruins the sheen of self (Untitled #402) – these details are both the effort of self-image and the shortfall.

The self behind the image, if indeed there is “one”, always betrays the image in some way. Sherman constructs this betrayal to get inside how we are always keeping up appearances to others and ourselves but her art doesn’t tend to judge this aspect of the human condition.

Her art is as much a portrait of human vulnerability as it is of artifice. Vulnerability is perhaps the reason behind the artifice.

Untitled #353. Image courtesy of Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures, New York

Even in portraits of a less than graceful ageing (Untitled #353) Sherman construes facial expressions lacking confidence – an expression that hopes the self is looking all together while the wig, the bling, and the uplift bra all seem to betray a little too much effort – a little too much denial.

Sherman’s preference to leave her artworks untitled helps to universalize the particular, and also leaves open the subject of the image. Subjects are amplified into more of a Shakespearian scope of character traits.

Large-format photography, a feature of Sherman’s more recent art, also amplifies the complexity of the human condition. These larger than life-size images demand attention to the detail that gives the game away.

You tend to walk away from Sherman’s portraits reflecting more on your own image than anyone else’s.

Cindy Sherman opens at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art on May 28.

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