by Sabrina Brennan  + TRACESF  2012.09.09 8:39pm

I recently had an opportunity to install a mural for the Cindy Sherman exhibition at SFMOMA, currently on view through October 8, 2012. Over the past 35 years, collectors and fans have had occasion to cringe as Sherman pushed the envelope of contemporary art to include social and bodily grotesqueries, as seen in the Horror and Surrealist Pictures (1994-96). My intention was to install Sherman’s mural perfectly, but given the technical challenges, a flawless execution was stressfully unpredictable. On the morning of the installation, the museum’s social media staffer snapped a few pictures for the Facebook page. When she asked, “What will happen if you damage the mural?,” I responded protectively, “Mistakes are not an option,” as if to prevent the unthinkable and deflect unsavory tweets.

Sherman moved from painting to photography in the mid-’70s when few women were successful in contemporary art, and painting and sculpture still dominated. Although the MoMA, opened in 1929, established a photo department in 1940, and the SFMOMA, opened in 1935 under then-director Grace L. McCann Morley, began collecting and exhibiting photographs almost from the beginning, risk-averse collectors were slower to warm to the new medium, preferring status-quo investments in traditional media. Today however, the acceptance of fine-art photography is evident through the market; last year, Sherman’s 1981 photo, “Untitled #96″ sold for $3.8 million at Christie’s. The winning bidder, Philippe Ségalot, a French-born art consultant and private dealer, paid almost twice what the photo was valued, making Sherman one of the best-paid photographers in the world.

My own photographic path crossed with Sherman’s when I arrived at the Atlanta College of Art in 1989 to study WPA photos from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. I was a second year transfer from the University of South Alabama with an interest in documentary photography—unfavored by fledgling artists. At first I didn’t have much in common with the photo students who hovered around the darkroom on the 4th floor of the Woodruff Arts Center. They were moving away from realism into shadowy nether regions informed by artists such as Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Andres Serrano, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Diane Arbus, among others. Sherman, unlike Annie Leibovitz, had no interest in photos that immortalized society’s elites. She was, moreover, not just an artist-for-the-people, but also a contemporary art leader and a successful businesswoman.

At the time, RuPaul was living in Atlanta and the local drag scene became the subject of my photography while I freelanced for Etcetera Magazine, a gay weekly. I also picked up work from a commercial photographer with Republican leanings, who asked me to park my black Chevy S-10 next to his black Chevy Silverado 1500. A breakthrough came when a fellow photo student developed a personality conflict with the staff photographer at Turner Broadcasting, and I was asked to interview for the position. When TBS made an “offer” for an unpaid internship, which I couldn’t afford, the Advertising Director found some money in her budget and put me to work shooting publicity events for World Championship Wrestling.

Exploring imaginary worlds with fictional heroes and villains brought home how powerfully these alternate realities provide an escape from the pressures of routine and the demands for conformity. My own growing sense of disconnection from conventional American life found solace outside the photo department. My friends and I mixed with a group of queer students from Georgia State with whom we threw spontaneous weekend house parties that often doubled as art-making sessions. We would dress up in a blend of thrift store clothes mixed with designer labels, flawless makeup, cheap wigs, and unlikely accessories such as an early wireless phone, a .44 magnum handgun, 64 oz. soft drinks from Circle K, and a mounted deer head. Occasionally at these gatherings, Lady Fingers, a Religious Studies and Philosophy student, hosted a reality TV show called ‘Style Beats,’ about gritty southern street fashion. Everyone was co-opted into performing a one-take segment for these VHS video productions, edited in-camera. Plans to go to an art opening or club were often dropped or forgotten because dressing up at home was safer and more fun than being seen on the streets of Atlanta in drag.

In similar fashion, I believe Sherman’s photographs, depicting herself in various social roles, are her way of expressing the need most us have to push apart the narrow parameters of daily life. She cooks up fictional characters from scratch that invite the viewer to develop a plot. The make-believe quality of the props and costumes deliver a steady stream of scenarios that wash away fixed narrative conclusions, allowing viewers to reinvent themselves. My enduring preference for still-photography to video is embodied by Sherman’s knack for presenting visual circumstances that require abrupt role-playing and trigger a reevaluation of one’s current self-identification. The work becomes a relentless moiré and offers an ocean of possibilities.

After finishing school in 1993 I packed up and drove my pickup to Northern California, renovated a barn on Bohemian Highway in Occidental, and sold camera equipment at a shop in Santa Rosa. A year later I moved to San Francisco and experienced firsthand the transition away from film and photographic printing to slightly less toxic forms of digital printing. In 1998 I founded a digital printing company, and in 2009 I told my wife that Richard Avedon’s magnificent Dovima with Elephants was the most elegant image I might ever work on. When the Avedon Foundation approved the print (104″ wide x 131″ high), my production skills—which dated back to a magnet school darkroom in Prichard, Alabama—felt validated.

As excited as I was about the Avedon project, the recent Sherman mural brought me face-to-face with the wizard of contemporary masques. Sherman works alone from her home studio in Tribeca without a photo assistant, makeup artist or stylist, and outsources her digital retouching, printing and installation.

When we began installing the mural, I was concerned that the low-tack adhesive fabric panels (228” high x 58.5” wide) might not bond well with the paint on the wall. Working under the microscope with a substrate specified by an artist can be nerve-wracking. The adhesive substrate is new on the market; the ink is exposed (un-laminated/unprotected) and it’s impossible to clean off the fabric because of its water-solubility. Adding to the challenge is the mural’s location in a high traffic area prone to scuffing on busy days.

In the week preceding the press preview, Cindy took up residency at the St. Regis and spent her days with curator Erin O’Toole, lead installer Kimberly Walton, and a good-looking crew of union installers and on-call artists. Margaret Lee, sculptor and full-time assistant to Sherman, was on-site throughout the mural install. Margaret worked alongside Jim Osterberg and myself as we positioned, trimmed and squeegeed the fabric to the wall. Cindy made friendly comments on her way in and out of the 4th floor galleries. A few visitors also stopped by for a preview. Cindy’s sister was in town from the southwest and showed me an early black and white work from her personal collection, on loan at SFMOMA. She also drew my attention to a Society portrait of two women, possibly sisters, which usually hangs in her own living room. Tom Heman, Cindy’s representative from Metro Pictures gallery in Chelsea, popped in for a walk through.

When we finished, Margaret Lee said we were the best mural installers she had ever worked with, and Erin O’Toole was thrilled to have everything completed in time for the press preview the following morning. Jim Osterberg and I had more to do; we moved to the Media Gallery to install the Tucker Nichols murals. Later that evening though, while my iphone photos were passed around the bar at Tom Marioni’s salon, I slumped in a chair, fatigued but satisfied that we had done justice to Cindy’s work.

Currently the curved, 47×18-foot mural is the first thing you see when stepping off the elevator onto the 4th floor at SFMOMA. The floor-to-ceiling piece includes black-and-white figures mixed with supersized color characters. Sherman meddles with scale, as three giants loom over a china-patterned landscape of Central Park. The watchful gaze of a woman in a full-length red gown follows viewers as they pass by. The formal landscape incorporates a texture of faux etching, giving it what digital imaging professionals describe as a ‘cheesy Photoshop effect.’

The mural characters lack makeup and prosthetics; instead Sherman chose to digitally manipulate facial features to create identities that stand boldly apart from the commercialized media faces that drive ad revenue and sell products. Where standard retouching aims to make a subject attractive, Sherman’s retouching does just the opposite.

The rest of the exhibit flows in reverse from the usual, with the last gallery to the right of the mural. Here, the Society Ladies stand ready to do battle. The demonic, bloodshot matrons are a vivid depiction of plastic surgeries gone awry beyond redemption. The scene at the SFMOMA Trustees’ dinner was striking, with socialites in the flesh joining Sherman’s Society Ladies. Before departing to the rooftop garden for dinner with the artist, an influential patron was overheard making an observation about the portraits: “The clothing looks cheap and dated.”  Had this patron not been in a hurry for dinner, he might have observed that Sherman’s imagery is a devastating attack on superficial idolatries. The unconvincing costumes and contrived backdrops are part of what hardcore fans love about the work.

I myself am looking forward to the day Sherman does a series of pictures about political leaders.