Still, don't be fooled by what may seem to be sarcasm — she is emphatic and earnest about the complications of photography's lies, and by extension about the sum of ways we can possibly present ourselves to each other. One of the main reasons art historians love Sherman's work is that she injects complicated arguments into the trajectory of identity and liberation theory. In her work, you see traces of an adaptable, slippery identity that represents itself only by wearing and exchanging costumes and masks. The self in Sherman's work is an actor that acts, and never leaves the stage. It's not that mastery of appearances allows for the actual presentation of the real, it's that appearances are the only thing there is. There is no presentation of the real, only the constructed reality of the presentation.
Viewed together with "Stage Presence," Sherman's work fills in for performance artists you might find oddly absent across the hall. She stands in for both Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, as well as Bruce Nauman. All the same concerns that those artists (yes, male) are known for — forces played out in the body by abjection, failed desire, absurdity, and the grotesque — abound in her work. In this context it's hard not to see both commentary on and participation with those artists in her clowns, fashion, and grotesque series. This angle is made most explicit by her work of the last dozen or so years. Less referential to film, her headshots and society portraits since the late 1990s include more plausible, abject characters whose constructed lives and identities are in various states of decay.
For another day or two, Sherman's photographs can be seen in contrast with the exuberant Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective at the De Young Museum (closing August 19). In some ways Sherman is the yang to Gaultier's yin, both addressing the slippery nature of identity and the performance of norms through the clothes and apparatuses of presentation. Highly recommended.
Through Oct. 8, $11-$18
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF