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.