Now on view at The Art Institute of Chicago, an exhibition titled Nothing Personal brings together three projects by seminal women artists Cindy Sherman, Zoe Leonard, and Lorna Simpson. The three have one thing in common: they created female “personas” who don’t exist … though conceivably could have. “I wanted each of the three pieces to ‘speak to’ the others, partly in agreement and partly in debate,” wrote curator of photography Matthew Witkovsky in an email interview with Women in the World. Though none of the women’s personas are “real,” their works, which together span the past four decades, offer a compelling alternative to mainstream female narratives and spotlight chapters in history that society has left largely unwritten.
In 1977, artist Cindy Sherman began her Untitled Film Stills, a series of self portraits that would strike a major nerve in the art world. Dressed as a blonde bombshell, a housewife, a starlet, or a murder victim, Sherman posed herself in “scenes” that appeared straight out of the movies; they would have been recognizable — film stills or publicity photos from the latest box office hit — had they not been completely fictional, constructed entirely by Sherman herself. Though other major artists of the era, like Andy Warhol, were utilizing pop culture, Sherman’s approach was unique: she was creating her own language to discuss feminine identity and the many prevailing clichés associated with it.
Looking through Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills for the first time is an eery experience. Though we may partly recognize Sherman’s female character through the visual clues she left — her pose or her surroundings — it’s clear there’s more to each woman than what’s on the surface. The images offer an irreverent critique of the watered down narratives assigned by Hollywood to female actresses and models. “The characters weren’t just airhead actresses,” Sherman has said. “The clothes make them seem a certain way, but then you look at their expression and wonder if maybe ‘they’ are not what the clothes are communicating.” By inserting herself into her Untitled Film Stills, Sherman influenced a generation artists to explore identity through performance and persona.
Zoe Leonard’s Fae Richards Archive, created between 1993 and 1996 in collaboration with filmmaker Cheryl Duyne, documents the life of a woman who never existed. Fae Richards, also known as “The Watermelon Woman,” is a black lesbian film star whose career spans the 1920s to the 1970s. Through Zoe Leonard’s meticulous creation and assembly of imagery, film stills and personal photos, we see Fae Richards as a child in the early 20th Century, as a film actress whose career is sabotaged by racism, and as an elderly woman in the post civil rights era. According to Leonard, the narrative “came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” Like Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Leonard’s Fae Richards Archive opens up questions about what’s missing from narratives about women in film, and goes a step further to question our historical record of queer women of color. Leonard, who works mainly with photography and sculpture, has exhibited at major institutions around the globe since her career took off in the late 1980s.
Lorna Simpson’s Corridor, a video created in 2003, places side-by-side two black women, a century apart. Artist Wangechu Mutu portrays both women, one a domestic servant from 1860, the other a wealthy homeowner from 1960. The scenes, of both women going about their daily routines, draw haunting parallels (as the homeowner applies makeup, the domestic servant begins housework, and so on). “By giving the viewer both halves at once, Corridor speeds up the passage of time that we understand in [The Fae Richards Archive],” wrote Witkovsky. Simpson’s work has always been socially engaged, raising thought-provoking questions about identity, race, and history in America. Her earliest work in the mid 1980s combined text with photographs, and she has since expanded her practice to include large-scale murals and video. Simpson has said of Corridor, “I do not appear in any of my work. I think maybe there are elements to it and moments to it that I use from my own personal experience, but that, in and of itself, is not so important as what the work is trying to say about either the way we interpret experience or the way we interpret things about identity.”
All three artists, through their groundbreaking work, have transformed the landscape of the art world for women artists. Through their inventive use of personas, each artist, according to Witkovsky, has opened up a sense of possibility, finding new ways to address social issues, race, gender, and history, and finding recognition in the process. “Of course, achieving recognition lends encouragement to those who think like you or want to work the way you do,” he wrote, “And it gives those same followers something to react against.”
Nothing Personal: Zoe Leonard, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson will be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 1, 2016.