The immediate visceral reaction to the new Cindy Sherman Exhibition at SFMOMA is laughter, the droll laughter of disbelief and awe at the sheer breadth, intellectual complexity and playful verve of Sherman’s photos.

It seems surreal that the diverse collection of models and individuals that populate the numerous images lining the gallery walls are really the same person, Sherman herself.

From the inception of her career, Sherman has served as her own model, makeup artist, stylist, art director and photographer creating a myriad provocative characters and personas that mix reality with fantasy together to create a hyperreality that seems familiar but can leave one with an uncanny feeling.

The exhibition, which collects together 150 photographs that span Sherman’s entire career, is divided into seven separate rooms chronologically arranged by project series starting with her earliest work done in 1975 and 1976.

Within the first room is some of the handmade collages done by Sherman as a nascent photographer that hint at the themes of representation and identity she probes with increasing depth in later projects.

Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman “Untitled #479″

 

In the second room is Sherman’s series Untitled Film Stills, which explores female archetypes and gender identity in the cinema of Hollywood, B movies, film noir, the French New Wave and Italian neorealism.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #56, 1980; gelatin silver print; 6 3/8 x 9 7/16″ (16.2 x 24 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

 

Fashion photography gets the tongue-in-cheek treatment in the the next collection: parodying the artificial beauty standards of glamorous fashion spreads, Sherman creates figures that disparagingly gaze back at the camera or appear beaten and battered, presaging the nineties popularity of the heroin chic look.

Models in the the centerfolds series draw inspiration from pin-up men’s magazines, but Sherman disrupts the male gaze by acting as both subject (the one who looks) and the object (the one who is looked at).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96, 1981; chromogenic color print; 24 x 47 15/16″ (61 x 121.9 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Carl D. Lobell; © 2012 Cindy Sherman San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 

For the next series, Sherman creates a series of portraits that resemble paintings from the Renaissance, baroque, rococo and neoclassical eras and reference the great masters. Using props and prosthesis, she transmogrifies her identity and appears in many photos as a male aristocrat in a Shakespearean gender-bending mode.

Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #216, 1989; chromogenic color print; 7′ 3 1/8″ x 56 1/8″ (221.3 x 142.5 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

 

Remaining series deal with the grotesque, macabre, fairy tales and the carnivalesque–a number of nightmarish clown photos are especially terror inducing.

Sherman’s most recent work–a series of portraits featuring older women set against garish scenes of affluence–explores the topic of aging and cosmetic surgery in a superficial culture that places a surfeit of value on youth and beauty.

Cindy Sherman:Untitled #474
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #474, 2008; chromogenic color print; 7′ 6 3/4″ x 60″ (230.5 x 152.4 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor, Michael Lynne, Charles Heilbronn, and the Carol and David Appel Family Fund; © 2012 Cindy Sherman

 

The Cindy Sherman Exhibition runs until October 8, 2012 and will feature a number of related events including a special series of film screenings. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to the SFMOMA webpage.