Looking with Fresh Eyes: How the Visual World Communicates – a critical reflection

First off, I feel the need to point out that what is to follow is part of a school assignment. Okay, so yeah, the initiation of this blog was also because of a school assignment but this particular one is a serious school assignment.


I actually had a little trepidation in writing this little explanation call it what you will but as you could probably tell from my earlier blog posts I’m not a particularly serious person. Despite this blog being for the purpose of school assignments I’ve never wanted this to get in the way of me expressing my personal voice (which is sometimes like a 15 yr old girl..) So just in case you read what follows and wonder who the heck the person writing this is I thought I’d leave this lil note.

Regular waffly me aside..


Attending the Cindy Sherman Show I found myself struggling to engage with some of her work, and consequently didn’t like it. Having little understanding of what a gallery experience would be like I found myself overwhelmed when viewing artworks with little text to explain what I was looking at, such as you find in books or on websites. Below is an example of one of the images I found difficult to comprehend.

Fig. 1. Cindy Sherman. Untitled 3425. 2004. Chromogenic color print, photo taken by author.

The above image is from Sherman’s Clowns series. Initially my thinking was focused on what I should be thinking, probably out of fear that I would misread the artwork, which resulted in me missing what this image was trying to communicate.

British art critic Ossian Ward suggests approaching contemporary art with a clean slate, allowing the work to fill that space (Ward 12). In my case I had approached the work with a mindset of how to approach it, which ironically failed me.

Following a similar line, the book Saying What You See: How to Write and Talk About Art gives a few techniques important in critical viewing. The authors propose that to state what seems obvious is fine as this allows for establishing links with other types of representation (Annals et al. 22).

Clowns are known for their over the top make up, clothing and gesture. In this sense Sherman is highlighting the levels of self that we portray. This was something I missed by failing to make connections beyond the literal portrayal. Another element to the Clowns series is Sherman’s reflection on the emotional state of everyday New Yorkers, following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. Though I have knowledge of the event, being so young at the time of the attack I think that lack of experience could possibly have limited my comprehension.

In How to See the World by Nicholas Mirzoeff, the author defines the study of “visual culture” as more than just seeing what is to be seen, but is assembling a world-view consistent with our own knowledge and experience (Mirzoeff 11). Perhaps this is why I found it difficult to engage with the Clowns series but really liked Head Shots.

Fig. 2. Cindy Sherman. Head Shots. 2000-2002. Chromogenic color print, photo taken by author.

This body of work comprises of Sherman impersonating middle aged Hollywood has-beens and wannabes. In these ID-like photographs she explores feelings of desperation and longing through emulating what we see in television soap operas. But unlike the glamorous lives depicted by Hollywood, we see in these women a ‘slippage’ through their poorly applied make up and awkward clothing and posture and consequently judge them.

At the time I didn’t see any relation between myself and the painting. After further reflection, however, I came to realise that when trying to portray a certain image of how I want others to view me, I too have caught myself in a similar moment of ‘slippage’. With this new realisation came a deeper appreciation of Sherman’s work in the way that she not only comments on superficiality at a larger social scale, but also calls out the viewer, reminding them to check themselves.

This experience with Cindy Sherman’s work has slightly improved my ability to critically view what I am looking at and understand how the visual world communicates, although I definitely see a need to practice this through furthering my experiences with critical analysis.



Works Cited

Ward, Ossian. “An Introduction.” Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art. Laurence King Publ., 2014, pp. 6-27

Annals, Alison et al. “Working with Images and Ideas.” Saying What You See: How to Write and Talk About Art. North Shore, N.Z., 2009, pp. 15-39.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “How to See the World.” How to See the World. Pelican Books, 2015, pp. 3-27


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