Closed Doors

Henry Lee by Mark Todd

Cindy Sherman and Mark Todd make strange bedfellows. One is subtle and introverted, the other loud and extroverted. She is slick, while he is rough. For these two artists to coexist under one roof seems at first anything but a match made in heaven. However, a closer look at the expressive core of "Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills" and "Mark Todd: Bad Lands," currently on display together at the Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown, reveals an exploration into the unseen and often dark worlds that take place behind the community's closed doors, making the two shows not so different after all.

In the 69 Untitled Film Stills photographs, taken from 1977 to 1980 when the artist was in her early twenties, Sherman was looking to undo female stereotypes. She modeled her subjects after the weepy B-movie characters of the 1950s and '60's, using various type personalities -- from professional actress to downtrodden housewife to honeymoon lush -- as a means of prying open the generalized notions of women from that time. She succeeds by depicting these women as lonely, frightened, battered, and paranoid individuals. In other words, these are not the proper roles of the reverent housewife and sober beauty that Eisenhower's America would like to have had. Instead -- as in Film Still #11 -- we witness a new bride lying alone in her dress on a motel bed with a handkerchief in one hand, a hand mirror in the other, and an emotionally drained and disaffected look on her face. And in Film Still #27, another potent image of a woman crying, we see a woman at a bar, martini and cigarette in hand, as though she'd just received some horrible news on her prom night. Like many of the photographs in the series, they commit the viewer into looking at private, uncomfortable worlds that aren't as pretty or calm as we want them to be.

Film Still #6 by Cindy Sherman

In fact, all the photographs in the Untitled Film Series depict a solitary model distraught with some inner struggle. In film stills #21, #22, and #23, she is a paranoid businesswoman or an out-of-place housewife looking over her shoulder in the big city. In #39, she is alone and half-clothed in her bathroom, checking in the mirror for faults in her thighs or stomach. It's as though we are privy to these characters worrying about getting older, losing their attractiveness, and ending up alone -- a stark contrast to the ideal of timeless beauty usually affiliated with the 1950s and its Grace Kelly fairy tales of the day. With her use of mirrors -- where we witness the artist looking at herself through the camera looking at herself in the mirror -- Sherman seems to dispel the myth by dragging women and all their insecurities, blemishes, and wrinkles into the real world.

What is most important about these works, however, is also what is most subtle. By using herself as the model in her viewfinder, Sherman was able to create a new aesthetic in the midst of an art world imploding with Andy Warhol's easily accessible Pop iconography. She both exaggerated Warhol's popular subject matter and altered it by acting in the role of Pop icon herself. We go from Warhol painting Marilyn Monroe to Sherman photographing herself as a Marilyn Monroe character. In many ways, Sherman's Untitled Film Stills reinforces the neurotic, relentlessly self-reflexive and ironic characteristics so prevalent in the postmodern art world. Call it the rebirth of existentialism and the end of free love at The Factory.

At the same time, while the carefully staged photos and fictitious subjects of Sherman's Untitled Film Stills series lend us a disturbing yet subtle perspective on the dark side of life, Mark Todd's creations in "Bad Lands" barge into darkness with much more offensive images of real-life horror stories. It's such a change that walking through the three galleries where Todd is showing is like stumbling through a briar patch. His work consists of enormous canvases painted to look like a serial killer's ransom note or a tortured man's last journal entry. In fact, fire scene and gold teeth could have been in the opening sequence of director David Fincher's movie Seven. Eerily, Todd's masterpieces are six-foot renderings of Henry Lee Lucas and other mass murderers offset with handwritten outtakes of their confessions.

Dark by Mark Todd

Even Todd's technique of using original poetry in his art is disturbing. For one, the visual appearance of the words -- large, pained scratches -- loom from above like admonishing barbs from a preacher's pulpit. This is most obvious in paintings like Daddy Lost His Legs, where a six-foot black canvas is emboldened with white handwritten shapes scrawled in utter disorder over the whole piece. The discomfort is reinforced when you realize that phrases like "there are worse things than being alone" are presented to look like a child's crayon-scribbled wonderings about how his or her father died after losing his legs in an accident. Basically, the words on canvas become the line and shape as well as the content of the art, and in the case of the four poems typed on two columns in the middle of the room, the art itself. It's a far more overt portrayal of the dark side of life than Sherman's.

Todd's subjects are the violent, fantastic, and grotesque. In this they seem much different from Sherman's cool, stylized female stereotypes. Where Sherman stays in the mainstream, among the housewives and businesswomen in the heart of society, Todd ventures out on the fringes, where the outcasts and the deranged live. His 43 killings series from 1997 -- a full 20 years after the first Untitled Film Stills were taken -- represent this fringe potently. In Big Joe, we see a clown-like figure with enormous ears. Next to him is the diptych Moody, named for the murderer John Glenn Moody, on which a four-foot mug shot of the man stares into the gallery with tired resignation. The other half of the work is a fragmented and clipped narrative reviewing his horrible crimes.

For the most part, Todd's work is not as self-conscious as Sherman's, but rather a somewhat callous portrayal of other people's dark lives in which the commentary is about the societal misfits around us. His message is clear and in-your-face, just like the simple, stripped-down work he displays. Still, just as Sherman seems to say "this is what you are" in her photographs, Todd seems to say "this is what you can become" with his canvases. Essentially, we are left seeing that the secret lives around us, whether they are our own or someone else's, can be equally as troubling.

Interestingly, Sherman's latest photographic work depicts grotesque and at times disgusting portraits of prosthetic limbs and masks, while her directing career has taken off with the horror film Office Killer (also showing at AMOA in the small movie room). Perhaps the natural progression from a self-reflexive postmodern introspection is toward a warped projection outward where imagination and reality seem to meld. Then again, maybe reality is warped enough as it is. Either way, if "Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills" and "Mark Todd: Bad Lands" are any indication, we can on the one hand look forward to a great deal of dark insight behind closed doors. On the other hand, perhaps there are no more closed doors.

"Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills" and "Mark Todd: Bad Lands" are on display at Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown, 823 Congress, through January 22. Call 495-9224.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Sam Martin
The Art of the Business of Art
The Art of the Business of Art
Gallery owners David Berman, Steve Clark, and Wally Workman on promoting artists and selling art

July 30, 2004

Talking Art at the Top
Talking Art at the Top
The executive directors of the city's museums shed light on the local visual arts scene

July 2, 2004


Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills, Postmodern Art, Postmodern Photography, Mark Todd, Amoa, New Works Series

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle