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Cindy Sherman Plays Wolf (To Nikki S. Lee’s Chameleon)

How do you get from Cindy Sherman, to Nikki S. Lee, and back?

By Sylvia Kwon

A visit to the recently concluded Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, with its mock portraits, master-painting recreations, and archetypal movie stills, all starring Sherman, evoked the work of Nikki S. Lee, whose Projects (1997-2001) similarly had the artist posing in the costumes and mannerisms of disparate social milieus. Their aesthetic concurrence, however, ends here. Sherman, of course, is known for her dogged reflection on the nature of representation, fueled by an uncanny ability to infuse her portraits with anything from kitsch to grotesquerie. Particularly striking was a gallery towards the end of the show, replete with head shots of “would-be or has-been” actresses pitching themselves to Tinseltown. Though Sherman is ostensibly creating individual identities—in part by changing apparel, wigs, and fake body parts—her use of the same, exaggerated makeup on each of these faces also has a congealing effect. Lacking titles or other referents, Sherman could be embodying no one and multiple identities at once. “Whichever part of the country they’re from,” we’re told, “we’ve seen these women before—on reality television, in soap operas, or at a PTA meeting.”

The Hip Hop Project (1) 2001 (Nikki S. Lee)

Where Sherman distorts, Lee is a more clandestine participant. In Projects, Lee engrafts herself into ethnic as well as social groups; at her best she is a deft chameleon. Part of Lee’s success derives from her surrounding cast, the very community into which she seeks entrance. Lee always reveals her artistic intent before she joins a group’s gatherings and adopts its practices; an acquaintance then takes the photo. “The work I do always needs to involves others,” she explained in an interview with The Creators Project. “I realized I couldn’t understand who I am without the people around me.” In Lee’s photos, the artist appears as though she has actually experienced another life; Sherman—satirizing female archetypes with the gracefulness of a wolf in a bloodied sheepskin—only fleetingly poses.

Where the two artists ultimately cross paths is in each’s challenge to the viewer: to find the hallowed artist, while also holding up mirrors to the viewer’s own tunnel vision. Why do we look for them through the inches of makeup? Do we care so much for the artists’ “true” identities that we must strip them with our eyes, or are we merely incapable of accepting their portrayals of the proverbial “other”?


The Cindy Sherman retrospective is on view at SFMOMA through October 8.