Cindy Sherman, Untitled C, 1975, photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 430 x 355mm, Tate.
Sherman was in her very early 20s when she took this photograph. It's actually student coursework. Nevertheless, she has already found her theme, style and begun her body of work proper. That's pretty impressive, when you consider how many important artists don't find 'it' until their 30s or even 40s.
Sherman is a great artist, one of the very best of the late twentieth century. There, I said it. What makes her great is that her work hovers beyond easy description, and is generally therefore described wrongly. What is usually said of this phase of her work is that her photos of herself, made-up and costumed, capture stock figures, usually female, from the history of cinema. Although she does not recreate any specific character, with rare exceptions, we know what sort they are.
This is wrong. We don't. We almost do, but we don't. Who is the girl she is pretending to be here? What movie have we seen her in? It's almost there, but it eludes us. Instead, the girl emerges nameless from darkness, as if arising from the collective unconscious. She does not capture cliche, but stands one step away from it. She creates the illusion of cliche, pointing us in its direction without being so boring as to present it. This pretty amazing feat puts her way above most other artists doing some deconstructing of media images shtick, and shows them up to be the pedantic, joyless, theory-obsessed bores they are. Sherman's work cannot be contained by theory. It rises above it, doing something strange and unknowable, as all great art does.