Untitled (#412) forms part of Cindy Sherman's Clowns series, which made their dramatic debut at her retrospective the same year at the Serpentine Gallery, London. The Clowns marked an incredible culmination of the masquerading that had characterised Sherman's photographs throughout her career, the quintessential expression of the carnivalesque aspect of her work. Always at the centre of her work and the principle subject, here Sherman has adopted her chameleon-like role to that of the clown. The suspension of disbelief, the implied makebelieve of the Untitled Film Stills of 1977-80 with which she made her name, is blown out of the water by the emphasis on the mask, on the make-up, on the adoption of a clown character. The acting that was implied both in the content of those Untitled Film Stills and in Sherman's own artistic process is exposed in a manner that combines humour and horror in equal doses. In Untitled (#412), the clown stares at the viewer with wide eyes, the enormous teeth of the manic grin unsettling rather than comic. Our anxiety as a viewer before this supposed figure of fun is made all the more intense by the dark, swirling psychedelia of the background, where candy colours have gained a sinister tinge. The monstrous aspect of this clown portrayal is accentuated by the fact that she is holding a model of Frankenstein's monster. Like the toy, Sherman's clown is a chimera: she is transgressing the usual associations with clowns by showing this one as demented, and also as female, with sensuous long blonde locks that perhaps recall the Hollywood Hampton Types of 2000-02. Rather than soften the image with this introduction of femininity, this effect only makes the clown more jarring as a construct.
Throughout her career, Sherman has tested the boundaries of photography, of portraiture and perhaps most importantly of identity. In most of her series, she herself has been the protagonist both in front of the camera and as photographer. In her role as both subject and 'portraitist', she has deliberately disrupted the usual flow of information implied by the photographic medium. She adopts roles before the camera, and thereby controls the image with a cool irony. This process means that she affords us only teasing glimpses of her own self behind the ever-shifting Protean range of guises that she adopts. In this way, the entire nature of photography as a means of recording appearances is upset and undermined. Through her evasions and removals, including the make-up and costumes she wears, Sherman highlights the extent to which we base our ideas of identity on assumptions and stereotypes rather than appearance or empirical data. However hard we look, we can never tell what is happening behind the mask. This is as true of clowns as it is of Sherman's own photographs: the Clowns function as the self-referential apogee of her entire oeuvre, a key unlocking her entire exploration of identity.
Sherman's pictures have often explored, specifically, cultural associations of femininity. Where her film star images of the 1970s and 1980s exposed the stereotypes associated with woman in movies and, by extension, in culture at large, in Untitled (#412) she has reversed the process, creating a deliberate monster and thereby forcing us to question our assumptions and expectations. By presenting herself as a clown, she has smuggled herself into another narrative, just as she did when she recreated famous paintings with herself as the protagonist in her History Portraits/Old Masters of 1988-90. She is placing herself at the centre of a man's world.
Where in her earlier works Sherman tested the boundaries of concepts of identity by taking on roles and thereby invoking stereotypes such as Bus Riders, mock-celebrities and models, in the Clowns she reveals her interest in archetypes. These were in evidence already in some of her previous works, for instance the Fairy Tales of 1985, yet the Clowns devote an entire series to one character, one archetype. The clown, fool or trickster is a character who is rooted in many of the most fundamental, elemental aspects of culture and mythology, a character discussed equally by Carl Gustav Jung and the pioneering literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. There is a privilege attached to the notion of these comical characters who, like the jesters in old stories, could tell the truth that noone else was able to utter. There is an idea of entertainment involved in the figure of the clown, who attends children's parties. Indeed, that role of entertainer provides an intriguing parallel to that of the artist, especially in the case of Sherman with her many disguises.