Housatonic Museum of Art: Rendezvous in Black celebrates film noir



by Keith Loria — Cinephiles and film aficionados have long been passionate about the genre of film noir, a style of movie making marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. The term usually is associated with American detective or thriller films released sometime between 1944 and 1954, and directors Orson Welles, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder are well regarded for exploring the genre.  

Artists Cindy Sherman of New York and Ann Chernow of Westport are both lovers of film noir and each has created her own series of art based on the popular movie style. Both have a solo show as part of The Housatonic Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Rendezvous In Black, running through Dec. 16.

“Both of these artists draw from the film noir style in creating work that could have been in the movies themselves,” said Robbin Zella, executive director of the Housatonic Museum of Art. “As in noir, the female roles are explored in their art, and the frames are provocative, mysterious and dare the viewer to decide what’s happening in each scene.”

Ann Chernow. MONA LISA. 2012. Lithograph printed on Canson paper. 8 x 10 7/16 (sheet 11 x 13 7/8). Edition 20, #4. Noir series. Caption: “I wouldn't give ya the skin off a grape.”
Ann Chernow. MONA LISA. 2012. Lithograph printed on Canson paper. 8 x 10 7/16 (sheet 11 x 13 7/8). Edition 20, #4. Noir series. Caption: “I wouldn’t give ya the skin off a grape.”

Noir filmmaking incorporated the stylistic elements of deep shadows, striated light, distorted angles, menacing alleys and dead end streets, with cops and killers, marks and dupes, and gumshoes and bums. 

“When these films were first being done, the directors didn’t know they were doing noir films, they got the name later,” Zella said. “They borrowed from German expressionist elements — dark shadows, sharp angles, striking black and white, and these movies were low budget. They emerged after the war so a lot of people were coming back, jaded, shell-shocked, and coming out of the Depression. These artists capture that feeling in their work.”

The exhibition came about once Zella learned that Chernow had created a series of stone lithographs surrounding film noir, and knew it would be a great marriage to a collection of photographs that Sherman was known for, detailing the subject.

“Ann had been working a very long time in this realm, mining film and film stars, initially working with starlets from the ’20s films and musicals, Zella said. “Once she worked her way up to the 1940s with film noir, we felt it would work well here.”

Chernow has been working with images from American movies for 25 years, but only recently started concentrating on film noir images.

“It was three years ago when I suddenly saw a movie that I remembered from my teenage years that I just flipped out about when I went to the movies as a young person,” she said. “It was ‘Double Indemnity’ with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. I fell back in love with it and it spoke to me.”

Almost immediately, Chernow began working with noir images, watching the films and sketching from the TV and creating stone lithographs. It didn’t take long for an entire collection to emerge, featuring stills of actresses such as Stanwyck, Virginia Mayo and Gloria Graham.

“Some of the images are fictitious scenes from the actual films,” Zella said. “There might be a scene from the film ‘Detour,’ but it’s a scene that didn’t exist in the film and she has created her own still, and she will create a caption with it. Many of these films relied on witty, one-liners so she creates those to go with her work.”

In her solo show, the artist will display 15 lithographs and 10 etchings. Chernow’s work, which predominantly features the femme fatale, displays a gritty world filled with danger, intrigue and seduction. Her women capture the spirit of the film style, causing viewers to pause and consider multiple interpretations of their placement within the frame.

“I don’t work for an audience, but what people have gotten out of it in the past is that they find themselves in all the situations that are depicted in these prints, and that’s exactly what I find,” Chernow said. “When I pick an image to start with, I choose one that is universal and speaks to me and one I have experienced.”

Cindy Sherman. Untitled film still # 35. 1979. Gelatin silver print. 10 x 8 inches; 25.4 x 20.3 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures
Cindy Sherman. Untitled film still # 35. 1979. Gelatin silver print. 10 x 8 inches; 25.4 x 20.3 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures

Sherman’s art, “Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980),” consists of 12 8×10 photographs and evoke the three roles women commonly played in noir films: the good woman, the marrying woman and the femme fatale. While her stills are entirely fictitious, they represent clichés that are deeply embedded in the cultural imagination of the time.

“The femme fatale is the dangerous, independent women who often brings the anti-hero into harm’s way. She usually dies in the end. Then there’s the saintly women, like a mom, who are faithful. The third is the marrying kind, the woman who stands for the moral life and good life. A lot of times, the anti-hero rejects her,” Zella said. “Cindy takes all these stereotypical women and deconstructs that in her photographs.”

Chernow is a big fan of Sherman’s work and is excited to be sharing an exhibition with her.

“Her realism is connected to noir because all the scenes she’s done keeps the idea we can identify with about ourselves,” she said. “Noir is very amusing sometimes and her images are very amusing sometimes but at the same time, is subversive in their content.”

Zella likes that the two shows are polar opposites, although both artists are using the same jumping off point to explore their own art and art making.

“We are an educational facility, as well, and we want students to learn more about noir,” Zella said. “Cindy Sherman is one of the most important female photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Ann Chernow is creating wonderful lithographs on stone. They use the same subject matter but we are introducing students to the ways artists use different media and how they mine visual tropes and create something new and different.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Housatonic Museum of Art will present a series of Noir films shown in the Burt Chernow Galleries, including   Night of the Hunter, featuring Bridgeport’s native son Robert Mitchum on Nov. 19; In a Lonely Place, featuring Humphrey Bogart, on Dec. 1; Out of the Past, directed by Henry Hathaway with Mitchum, on Dec. 3; and Christmas Holiday, with Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin, on Dec. 8.