And so, naturally, she had to look for a harder way. She has, so to speak, stripped the velvet gowns, the disguising poses off her history portraits to expose spongy vaginas, absurdly fake penises, bizarre artificial groins, thighs, couplings and dismemberment.
"I just thought I don't want to be perceived as a successful artist and just be happy to make lots of money," she says. "It was also knowing that nobody's buying art anymore so why not make something that nobody would buy anyways. I mean, I don't know if I would want one of these in my house."
And she laughs that laugh that says: I'm an innocent, don't expect too much of me. Her talk is spattered with "I mean," "like," "I don't know," with false starts and lame endings. Downtown acquaintances, critic Peter Schjeldahl once reported, refer to her as "the idiot savant." Except, like her inspired dress-up, that's finally also an act.
She may not be as articulate as many a lesser artist. But she's altogether clear about what she's up to. This is angry work: about "the censorship that's going on right now with the NEA and artists in general and funding," about Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, about the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials, about AIDS.
"I've been married for 10 years," says Sherman, whose husband is French video artist Michel Auder. "I haven't experienced AIDS, and condoms, and (whether) you sleep with anyone anymore, or do you get tested after you've been dating. So I guess I was just sort of blown away by what people have to live with just to have a relationship and survive. Like, my husband's daughter is 21 years old. I just can't imagine being 21 and having to, like, you know--it's such a different thing for me. I'm just an outside observer, initially shocked and relieved that, God, at least I've been with the same person for 10 years, but I'm, I don't know--curious. . . ."
Sherman is giving us the real-life down-and-dirty answer to the soft-porn photographs and sculptures that Jeff Koons showed at SoHo's Sonnabend Gallery last winter. People came from New Jersey, from Philadelphia, to gape and snicker at the close-up vision of Koons and his Italian porn-star wife, Ciccolina, doing it in a haze of colored gels, a bower of flowers.
Even when Sherman, the actress, was posing for her own photographs, she would use something distracting--fake body parts, noses, eyebrows--to signal artificiality. It's by accentuating the unreal that she gets to tell some kind of truth.
This time, she's not even in the picture; she's letting preposterously fake sex parts she ordered by catalogue from medical supply houses do it for her.
"These are molds that you practice putting catheters in," she says. One of her photographs, for instance, of two groins--one male, one female--joined end to end at the waist "came in this suitcase," she remembers. "Each had their own heavy-duty suitcase, and you open it up and there are all these practice catheters in there, and there's just this spread-eagled woman and this man with the long hanging (penis). I guess what struck me about how weird they were is that the skin part of it in the legs and stomach looks like it must have been cast from older people, so it's very realistic, and yet the vagina and the penis are sculpted from clay. I was just blown away and fascinated."
But she fell as much for the humor of the situation as the horror. As nightmare as her unrelenting, unforgiving vision is, it's also hilarious.
The first work in this series she made was based on a mannequin officially called Patient Michael, which has interchangeable sex parts. She posed him/her on elbows and knees, and shot from the rear so that it looms large and elongated like Bauhaus sculpture.
"I was trying to make it a sad commentary on maybe child pornography," Sherman says. "It looks like a little girl, like somebody told her to bend over and she did. I just wanted to make it show the fear and frustration and what you would imagine a little girl would feel like."
Then she made a male version; gay pornography. A man with fake breasts, spread legs and an ax behind his head, is reclining, wearing a hangman's mask.
"I think that one's more humorous because it's heavy castration anxiety," says Sherman.
There are also touching, funny, allegorical and awful close-ups of penises and vaginas, including a palpably fake, distinctively flaccid blowup of a penis.
"It just looks like some modernist painting it's so close up," says Sherman. "I wanted to blow it up so big that it would look almost abstract and also I think I was just commenting on the male presence in the art world. I was thinking of it hanging down, instead of the phallus that's pointing toward the sky."
We could always count on Sherman to startle, shock, and hold a mirror up to our private cravings and the public ways in which we permit them to be manipulated. But the new work goes for the groin. It's got Surrealism's obsession with the dark side of the unconscious.