I know Cindy Sherman, not that we've ever met.I don't even recognize her when she occasionally pops up in party photos taken by the paparazzi. She has an indistinct look, fair, blondish, aquiline nose and oval face, nothing remarkable or particularly memorable. Unlike the photos she takes of herself -- those are distinctly memorable. So much so that she is the most famous and successful photographer of her generation.When a Cindy Sherman retrospective is organized, museums vie to get it. Her work doesn't travel often, and when it does, it is a big event. That event is on exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art with the succinct title "Cindy Sherman."The reason I know Cindy Sherman is that she followed the same road map to the femme future available to other baby boomers. The paths were hidden in comic books, then fashion magazines and movies. They were parsed in private, late at night, surrounded by the flotsam of childhood in a ruffled pink suburban bedroom. There was so much disconnect between what was printed on paper and celluloid and what was seen down the hall in the family kitchen. Just exactly what we were supposed to be? How were we to dress? Where were we to go?The rest of us muddled through the learning curve; Sherman exploited it. She cast herself in the starring role of the ingenue and the fast girl. She had paid very close attention to the hairstyles, the cut of a skirt, the right kind of torturous lingerie and the locations, from big-city streets to sleazy motel bedrooms. She made the sets, hung the lights and did her own hair, makeup and costuming. It was a private fantasyland of photography.Then she showed the world her work. The response was overwhelmingly positive. No one was more surprised at the critical acclaim than Sherman. She thought she was only playing a sophisticated kind of dress-up. The costumes were play-acting.However, her observations were so trenchant, they became the visual vehicles of gender studies of the 1980s. She never expected that.In one of her earliest photographs, Film Still #6 (you know where you are in her oeuvre because she has numbered her photographs rather than titling them), she is lying on a floral bedsheet only a mother would choose, in high-waisted white granny panties and a bullet-proof black bra. She has the vacant cross-eyed stare of Persian cats and bimbos.You know she's thinking, "This? This is sexy?"The viewer also knows she tried on the idea of this photograph long before she ever had a camera to record it. Nice girls did things like that, and Sherman has always been referred to as a "nice girl." A label that chafes.She hit back and showed she was capable of dark imaginings in series that include frightful clowns, piles of slimy viscera and grisly medical mannequins.Her practices at the womanly arts show insecurities that never left the adolescent. In Untitled #131I, she stands in front of another flowered sheet, wearing a full-length Jean Paul Gaultier-type bodysuit, with cone bra, corset and all manner of lacings to make it as tight as a sausage-skin casing. She demurely covers her crotch as if she was caught by surprise trying on a Madonna get-up and doesn't have what it takes physically or mentally to pull it off. Indeed, the cone bra cups are woefully crushed.Now she is older and bolder. As the crow's feet of middle age etch her face, she moves along the stereotype timeline. She has photographed herself as wealthy society matrons, decorously dressed, perfectly coifed and bejeweled. Tummies pooch, breasts sag and legs are encased in support hose, but her eye contact with the camera is fiercely unapologetic.She is now looking into her future, and she envisions herself a crazily dressed bag lady wearing what looks like organdy curtains as a shawl, an old housedress, tube socks and an orthopedic boot. This 14-foot-tall portrait is plastered on top of a wall-sized mural of Central Park. Yes, it's probably true. The insecurities of youth and how to behave have given way to a very thorough I-don't-care.I'm right there with you, Cindy, marching in orthopedic footwear into dotage and wearing curtains as a wrap. Tick-tock.
The retrospective will be on view through June 9 at the Dallas Museum of Art. Tickets are $16.
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