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Cindy Sherman, Art World Shape Shifter, To Exhibit At The Broad

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"Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life" at The Broad (Courtesy of The Broad)
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Before we started imitating celebrities on Instagram, and before we became celebrities by turning the camera on ourselves for YouTube, there was Cindy Sherman, photographing herself in her studio.

She shot portraits of herself as Marilyn Monroe, as a pale muse from a Botticelli painting, and as an aging figure skater with the kind of bad tan you see only in retirees from Florida. Was it all a prank? Just for laughs? I remember walking into a Cindy Sherman exhibit at the New York MoMA, and passing by a mother who was leading her two children out of the room, walking briskly as if they'd accidentally stumbled into a peep show. "God! They're just pictures of herself!" she exclaimed.

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"Untitled #122" (Courtesy of The Broad)
Yes, pictures of herself. Today, selfies may be connoted with vanity. But for Sherman the camera was a way to suggest that a "self" was, perhaps, nothing more than a flimsy tapestry of signifiers. The idea is troubling, but also empowering, depending on how you look at it. In her studio (and outside of it) she would curate a persona to project. And we, the viewers, had no choice but to be subjected to the fixed frame of Sherman's eye. We look at the picture and ask "Who are you trying to be?" But the picture, unremitting, would just stare back and say "This is it." As it turns out, the folks at The Broad are big admirers of Sherman's work. So big, in fact, that they've accumulated more than 100 of her photographs for their collection. This Saturday those pictures will fill the first floor of the museum for Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life the Broad's first special exhibition since opening last September. It will also be Sherman's first major show in L.A. since 1997, according to WWD.

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Philipp Kaiser, brought on as a guest curator to oversee the exhibit, told KCET that the show will highlight the "cinematic quality" of Sherman's work. It's an apt decision; for all the talk about the lurid and off-setting qualities of Sherman's work, some overlook how lush and flattering her palettes are. Her photographs look as if they could be film stills, and in fact she has an entire series, "Untitled Film Stills," shot in this manner. In Untitled Film Still #21, one of Sherman's most enduring images, Sherman is standing by a midtown Manhattan street corner, looking very pensive, evoking Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren in a Hitchcock romp. This picture, along with the other "film stills," will be featured in the Broad collection.

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Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still #47" (Courtesy of The Broad)
Aside from exhibiting her cinema-like works, the Broad will also present 1997's Sherman-directed Office Killer, her first foray into actual cinema. Actress Carol Kane, whom you might remember as the wife of the lovable Latka on Taxi, plays a mild-mannered copy editor who goes on a free-wheeling murder spree. Stephen Holden, in the New York Times, called it a "crude, laugh-free horror spoof" which attests to Sherman's knack for thwarting expectations.

The exhibit will focus on the film-like qualities of Sherman's oeuvre, but it also sounds like it will be a simple testament of her career as a whole. It will touch on many of the prevailing themes in her work, such as her denial of the "male gaze" through off-kilter poses, and her re-wiring of long-held notions on gender and beauty. As noted by KCET, "when Sherman responds with consciousness to outside influences in a cinematic way, the results are outstanding."

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The title, Imitation of Life, is apropos. The phrase itself may be misconstrued as an off-handed slight. But, as Sherman has shown, imitation itself may be the sincerest of expressions.

The exhibit runs from June 11 to October 2. Because the show is part of The Broad's special exhibition program, admission will be $12 for adults, and free for children 17 and under.