Cindy Sherman’s recently debuted Instagram account is the Instagram account the art world has been waiting for. True to her body of work, Sherman’s account isn’t just a showcase of recent and archival images from her storied body of work. Instead, Sherman has been using the platform as a medium for polished and beautifully composed, artistic self-portraits, which elevate the standard shoddily produced and (occasionally) poorly lit social media selfie. Here, Sherman appears in heavy costume and makeup, but instead of applying said features by hand (like many a Instagram celeb and beauty blogger), Sherman has embraced digital apps, uglifying her face via Facetune or applying heavy digital makeup via Perfect365. The result juxtaposes her artistic craft with the low-quality resolution of these digital images. Her Instagram posts also beg the question: “Can art exist as concept alone, or does production value still matter?”
Sherman’s Instagram account has been met with wild praise, with Jerry Saltz saying succinctly that “she’s killing it” and Salon declaring the account as (possibly) the best art exhibit of 2017. It has also been on the receiving end of some healthy skepticism. Paddy Johnson of Hyperallergic found the images to be underdeveloped and unworthy of Sherman’s canon. I, however, find Sherman’s Instagram account to be a fascinating experiment. She’s simply exploring new ways to communicate her overarching themes of gender, sexuality, identity and class in the context of the rapid-paced environment of digital media. While Instagram is definitely something new for Sherman, this isn’t the first time that the artist has applied her high art concepts to low culture media. In 1997, Sherman released a schlocky serial killer film Office Killer. An extremely low-budget comedy slasher, Office Killer follows a low-level magazine employee as she “finds herself” by freeing herself of the media world stereotypes. Naturally, she does this via acts of ultra violence and murder.
The film was widely panned upon its release (it currently stands at a whopping 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), but a couple decades later, Office Killer has aged shockingly well. Here, just like she is currently doing with Instagram, Sherman uses the artistically limiting, low-brow medium of a budget slasher film to convey her ideas outside of the confines of the gallery. Shockingly, Office Killer largely works as a silly horror film. It’s entertaining, gory, funny, and surprisingly well-acted. But it also works as a Cindy Sherman work of art, in that it evokes themes of identity, class, self-actualization, and the stylization of violence and gore. Sherman has an admirably precise vision of her expression, and Office Killer was her first bold experiment to showcase that expression outside the nit-picky world of art theory and into a medium that is sillier, more welcoming, and in many ways more rewarding.
From her very first series of black and white self-portraits, Untitled Film Stills, Sherman has used makeup, costume and performance to embody a stereotypical media projection of different women: the woman in trouble, the seductress, the abused wife, and on and on (with her projects eventually escalating evocations of the macabre and the grotesque). The women in Office Killer are also all stereotypical projections of the archetypal women normally portrayed in media, Hollywood, and pop culture.
The film stars Carol Kane (the brilliant actress of seventies Hollywood films like Dog Day Afternoon and Annie Hall, but perhaps better known to millennials as landlord Lillian on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as Dorine, a skittish copyeditor with awkward working relationships and an even more confounding relationship with her mother. She is a pitch-perfect stereotype of the woman beaten down by her work environment, familial relations, and loneliness. From there, we have Molly Ringwald as Kim, the stereotypical modern woman and seductress, caught in a relationship with a married man. Finally, there’s Barbara Sukowa (a former muse of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who Cindy Sherman has expressed admiration for) portrays Virginia, the heartless corporate editor addicted to work and averse to kindness (think Anna Wintour).
Most of these women are doomed. The “Office Killer” is quickly revealed to be the mousy Dorine when she “accidentally” murders a co-worker by “failing” to call for help as he’s being electrocuted. Sherman peppers the film’s narrative with flashbacks to Dorine’s childhood and interactions with her mother, only hinting at the source of her anxiety and inability to form real relationships. We learn that her father, the founder of the magazine the women work for, sexually abused Dorine as a child, and that her mother seemed to know and tolerate this truth. The second that Dorine allows a man to be electrocuted to death, we see something in her change. It’s not just that she becomes a deranged serial killer playing with her murdered co-workers flesh and organs in her basement. She also starts to become assertive – poised, even – as she gains confidence in her talents at work. As she descends slowly into murderous insanity, she simultaneously grows in self-possession and willingness to communicate. She becomes empowered.
Meanwhile, her co-stars all fall victim to their own stereotypes. Kim gets lured into Dorine’s trap when Dorine sends her an e-mail from her married lover’s account. But the most fitting death belongs to Virginia, the boss, who’s murdered by Dorine simply for staying at the office too long, despite her chest cold. Dorine poisons her inhaler and Virgina takes one final whiff. Some people just don’t know when they ought to stay home.
No, Cindy Sherman wasn’t suggesting that women should go out and start murdering people to break free of the images that society projects onto them. Rather, in Office Killer, Sherman uses camp theatrics and horror gore to analyze the danger of these female media stereotypes. The media uses image to control, and to truly be free, one must shed these images altogether.
Sherman’s work has always been lighter than that of many of her contemporaries, embracing camp theatrics, heavy-handed storytelling, and grotesque makeup and effects. In fact, her photographs have more in common with filmmakers like John Waters than they do with “Pictures Generation” contemporaries like Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger. Office Killer works in the same way that Waters’ films work: high-minded concepts packaged in a light, silly, and entertaining medium.
For a very long time, it was cinematic images that defined pop culture, so she made self-portraits that both reflected and deconstructed those cinematic images. She then went a step further with Office Killer, making a film that’s entertaining at face value but also provides another portal into Sherman’s thinking and conceptual practice. Now, social media provides many of our most powerful and pervasive images. Kylie Jenner selfies are the new film stills. It therefore makes perfect sense that Sherman would turn to Instagram. As times change, Sherman is always willing to see her work mutate and evolve and take on new forms. We are lucky to have her.