‘I’m not trying to be tongue-in-cheek and look ridiculous,’ Cindy Sherman says.
But you would be forgiven for thinking she was taking the piss out of performative femininity by playing dress-ups with other’s costumed selves.
In Untitled #354 Sherman takes care to leave tan lines and whitish sockets around the eyes. Her teeth are too white. She pouts with garishly plump lips and a caked on face in #360. She is a vamp, a calisthenics mum, a lascivious mogul, an aging starlet, a victim, a media socialite. Her face is always somehow ghoulish and terrible – we see the second skin but not the person. We know she is playing a game and maybe it is funny as long as you do not self-identify with the performance. But there is fat chance of that, even for her.
‘I see bits of myself in them,’ Sherman says of her characters, though denies any inference that the works are auto-biographical. She describes whole days adjusting her make-up, costume and props in solitude to fully ‘become’ her characters.
Her works are deliberately untitled so that the viewer can slot the tropes into their own perceptions about gender roles. We feel like we know her characters, the same way we know the female protagonists of Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, the seminal work that launched her career. Her characters are untouchable, problematic and uncomfortably familiar. Can we find the parody humorous without acknowledging the absurdity of our own complicit constructs?
Whether aesthetically conventional or saturated to a garish level of absurdity, Sherman exploits humour and recognizable societal roles to explore constructed identity. Christian Thompson uses a similar strategy to comment on cultural and gender identities, and he has the same blank-slate approach.
‘I’m really just the armature to layer ideas on top of,’ Thompson says.
Where Sherman clearly delves into feminine roles, media tropes, and grotesque caricature, Thompson’s approach to costume is far more nuanced. He describes it ‘in terms of performativity’, his physical self a ‘template,’ fashionably stylized with historical references and polished with a pop culture veneer that requires close reading to unpick all the layers.
‘I’m always looking for materials [to layer],’ Thompson says.
Thompson’s Polari (2014) series makes elaborate use of disguise and costume in exploring identities. He is at once a brooding ashed-out spirit being, contemptuous and alluring, a hyper-pop cherubic beauty flexing for the camera, then a ghostly figure with white feathers woven in to a crown of natural curls. The portraits in the series utilize decorative costume and make-up - powder-white skin, hydrangea crowns, reddened or blackened irises, cockatoo feathers, garlands and wigs - amalgamating ideas about cultural and sexual identity. Thompson blends a high fashion sensibility with more incongruous elements of myth, memory, history and narrative, all coalescing into the one contemporaneous performance of self.
There is a duplicity in both Thompson and Sherman’s approaches which pander to somebody else’s idea about the self and how we should be. Sherman describes her compulsion to dress up as others as an abstract psychological exercise in likeability. Thompson veers towards the opposite approach; less concerned with appearances of status and beauty than a global collision of identities, he reveals the suppression of alternate narratives in history and popular culture. For both artists, the use of costume and dress-up offers the opportunity for critical self-reflection as well as the chance to reflect on our experiences of representation and identity.