Cindy Sherman tilts her head away from the viewer. Her lips converge in a glossy pout; her eyes are thickly bounded with eyeliner. Her entranced gaze admires the Ingleby Gallery’s ornate Victorian skylight, recently renovated, as an intimation of some divine light looming above her. Sherman’s self-portrait measures less than twenty centimetres, but her presence is expounded by the yellow wall behind her – expressive of a holy, lively glow.
‘I feel I’m anonymous in my work,’ she told the New York Times in 1990 An icon of late-twentieth-century feminism, Sherman allows the viewer to decide whether she posits herself with the glamour of a film star, or with the iconism of the Madonna. Whichever persona Sherman takes on in this work, she has no interest in looking back at her beholder, yet wholly relishes the attention she is being given.
Such an engagement with the observer defines Sometimes I Disappear, titled after Sherman’s famous interview with the New York Times. Despite this emphasis on her biography, the exhibition also displays the work of three other artists: Zanele Muholi, Oana Stanciu and Francesca Woodman. The installation is modest; their work is displayed along the four walls of the gallery’s main room, all of which are for sale. The underlying theme of each artist’s self-portrait is the ambiguity with which it acknowledges the viewer’s gaze, and the subsequent narrative each photograph recounts.
Most notable in the exhibition is the collection of Muholi’s self-portraits, placed opposite Sherman. A South African native and self-described ‘visual activist’, it becomes clear the cultural message Muholi attempts to express through her work. The self-portrait MaID III (2018), as part of her Hail the Dark Lioness series, stares straight back at the viewer with a visible displeasure. Over her head and across her neck, tangles of knotted rope have been fixed into place by large clamps. Through her unerring locked gaze with the observer, Muholi communicates a challenge and tangible discomfort continued throughout the string of surrounding photographs. A nest of sunglasses atop her head plays on the semantic implications of looking, and a haloid plastic bucket intimates the quotidian hardships of being a South African woman. The challenge of curating a commercial group show, especially for a gallery of such modesty, lies in the equal emphasis given to each artist. All the photographs were of note, but Ingleby’s hanging of the different artists did a disservice to Woodman and Stanciu, whose work was dulled by the choosing of mute pastel colours for the walls behind them. Perhaps unintended, the placement of Sherman and Muholi on opposite walls, locked in a visual dialogue, seem to be the statement pieces of the exhibition.
Less striking in their hanging, Woodman and Stanciu felt as more of an afterthought, or an ellipsis building up to the arresting stare of the former artists. Considering Woodman as a contemporary to Sherman, and whose work Sherman would have had frequent contact with, this is a surprising downfall of the exhibition. The Ingleby marked its 20th year in 2018 by moving into the new premises of Scotland’s largest Glasite Meeting House in the New Town, Edinburgh. Since its relocation, the gallery has grown notable acclaim amongst the city’s art scene with expertise in the work of Scottish artist Callum Innes and a lengthy repertoire of representation for Scottish artists. Sometimes I Disappear is the first exhibition of the gallery’s 2019 programme displayed in Ingleby’s Barony Street locus, initiating an exciting sequence of displays to come.
‘When I look at the pictures, I never see myself,’ Sherman continues in her interview with the New York Times. It is this act of looking, or rejection of looking, which elevates Sometimes I Disappear as an exhibition worth consulting. The duality of presence and absence represented through both the concealment and exposure of the sitters’ gaze gives the installation a palpable intensity. Although this may be better expounded in the works of Sherman and Muholi, the observer is still invited to accept the glare of the artist, or in some way attempt to earn it. The exhibition may be humble in size, but certainly not in character.
Image: Carlos Finlay