Image via: Guest of Cindy Sherman
If you've heard anything about Guest of Cindy Sherman, a new documentary tracing the career of quasi art celeb and one-time Sherman partner Paul H-O, you probably won't be surprised to learn it shakes out as expected: Informative interviews and archival footage make up the first half of the movie, and grating pseudo emo-male explorations of gender dynamics compose the second. In the 1990s, H-O produced Gallery Beat, a New York-based cable access show covering art openings and events. Later, he dates actual art celeb Cindy Sherman, but their relationship suffers because H-O doesn't like operating in the shadow of his girlfriend.
“New York is the suck-up capital of the world, and Cindy thinks people are really nice,” Paul H-O told me recently, pointedly adding “And I don't”¦ she's very naÃ¯ve.” Brazen “I-understand-the-world-better-than-you” statements occur so rarely in press interviews I wondered how much of the film was meant to justify the director's contributions to the art world. After all, museums, dealers and collectors attribute so much intellectual and commercial value to Sherman's work; even the most tangential of relationships to her take on an importance they wouldn't have otherwise. H-O willingly acknowledged this when I asked him why critics hadn't spoken qualitatively about his own work. “Cindy's obviously a subject of much more interest than what I did or do or have done, really.” Nonetheless, the movie explores the director’s work, interests and personal life, only occasionally establishing its effect on the art world.
Beginning the film more or less where we are now — in the face of a recession — Guest describes a friendly art world open to small DIY operations such as Gallery Beat. Co-directors Tom Donahue and Paul Hasegawa-Overacker’s opening montage demonstrates that reality, though former Whitney director David Ross reminds the audience: “You knew you could let them in. They wouldn't be seen by that many people.”
An audience gets a feel for the Gallery Beat's unpretentiousness almost immediately. Art in America editor and host of the show Walter Robinson describes it as “The Beavis and Butthead of the art world.” Julian Schnabel eventually explodes at Paul H-O, condemning his coverage as a “masturbatory exercise in stupidity.” As though it were a bad thing; though not explicitly stated, Schnabel in fact represents the enormous male ego– a theme lurking throughout the film. Speaking specifically to gender, painter April Gornik complains about the many exhibition opportunities afforded to the bad boys of the ’90s. (Her husband Eric Fischl claims the opposite). Laurie Simmons discusses how she changed the size of her photographs so she could exhibit with men making super-sized paintings.
But like Schnabel's outburst, the most powerful statements on gender dynamics usually aren't emphasized as such. Certainly John Waters’ description of Sherman's importance — “They don't say photography anymore. They just call it art because of her work” — makes a strong statement about feminism, particularly as the subject of art, without explicitly labeling it so. Her art literally changed the context in which people discuss a medium, and it did so within a feminist framework.
Soon we see Paul H-O meet and flirt with Cindy Sherman, who then later hook up. In 2000 Gallery Beat finds its end when higher market stakes keep galleries from granting them event access, and the appeal of Cindy's fame begins to grow thin for the director. “Am I being too sensitive masculine?” H-O asks actress Jeanne Tripplehorn, “Yes,” she tells him in so many words, but that doesn't prevent an inane comedy routine from following. “Whatever happened to that guy who married Madonna?” he jokes rhetorically. In fact, were it not for the interview with Panio Gianopoulos, an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing (and Molly Ringwald's husband), the entire segment on unequal partnership might not have been palatable at all. Not only does Gianopoulos elucidate the crux of the dilemma — that it feels like it shouldn't be one — but he provides the most compelling example of unintended cruelty. Describing his memory of the time photographers once flocked to shoot a guy wearing an animal costume at the Planet of the Apes premiere, Gianopoulos observed, “I've never been more anonymous than something from a different species.”
Notably, this was not described as a gender issue, but a people problem. The film would clearly have benefited from taking this perspective a little more frequently, though I got the sense this wasn't part of H-O's agenda. This was a movie made to validate his own projects and concerns. Were they not quite so superficial, he might have succeeded.
Guest of Cindy Sherman screens at Cinema Village through this Saturday.
This review was edited by S.T. VanAirsdale and Peter Zimmerman.