Cindy Sherman review
Painted smiles, darker truths

When Cindy Sherman began exhibiting in the late 1970s and 1980s, she was occasionally labelled "self-obsessed". In a sense, she is: her work is predominantly concerned with taking photographs of herself in various modes of disguise. But this focus on appearance and identity also struck a chord with a new era of individualism and Sherman has never seemed more contemporary.

A handful of photographs is all you will find at Sherman's show of recent works at London's Sprüth Magers gallery (a larger exhibition has just ended at the Berlin branch) - there are five works (three upstairs and a further two in a basement, which visitors must ask to see) on an unprecedentedly large scale. Each image is a rich construction: Sherman's work asks to be decoded, unravelled. With a brilliant documentary photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, we marvel at the way his lens has captured a split-second of life; with Sherman, we marvel at the way she has managed to make artifice look, for a split second, like life.

Sherman's Untitled Film Stills series (1977-80), which earned her early acclaim, focused on women of her age - in their late 20s - starring in B-movie roles. The life reflected in this new show is that of the wealthy American female, again around Sherman's age (55) - past her prime physically but at the height of her social powers. The difference is that the Film Stills series centred on women acting, whereas these new photographs (also "Untitled") show "real" women, even if in a sense they are still playing a role. "I think they are the most realistic characters I have done," Sherman says. "I completely empathised with them. They could be me. That's what was really scary, how easy it was to make myself look like that."

These proud dames are protected by their sartorial armour and at the same time utterly exposed by the camera - and our scrutiny.

"To me, they seem tragic yet heroic," Sherman says. "I was intrigued by the notion of people who have portraits of themselves made to reflect their status in life."

Dolled up, coiffed, bejewelled and swathed in satin or taffeta, they are determined to present a certain face to the world, that of the wealthy woman, well-preserved and well-positioned.

Yet in spite of this aura of success, there is sadness beneath the painted smiles. In "Untitled #466", a woman stands tall in an azure brocade kaftan. Although her nails are perfectly manicured and her hair expertly blonded, her make-up is mask-like and her feet seem swollen and trapped in her pastel-pink mules. The Italianate courtyard behind her is actually a shot of the Cloisters in New York, which, as with each of the backgrounds in these works, Sherman added later. Sherman is famed for her autonomous approach to her art (she styles, shoots and develops everything herself), and digital photography has speeded production hugely. "It has completely altered my work process - totally for the better," she says. "I would never go back to film."

The woman in "Untitled #470", wearing a red satin dress slashed at the neck, is a more grotesque vision. Her face is pasty and overly made-up, her bloodshot eyes ringed in severe kohl pencil, and her eyebrows vampishly drawn on. The most poignant detail is a Spanish fan, intended to lend a flash of exoticism, but tawdry here and casting an ugly shadow across her forearm.

Sherman wants us to read these details like signs, pointing us to a deeper truth. Again, it is a clever inversion of the original use of the camera. In the work of a naturalistic photographer, it is often the accidental that adds charm; in Sherman's work, nothing is accidental. And yet Sherman seems to tell us that this is itself naturalistic: nothing about these women would ever be left to accident.

The cult of the artist has loomed so large that "self-obsessed" is no longer a criticism - more a given. But in comparison with an artist such as Tracey Emin, whose work is unashamedly self-centred, Sherman wipes her own identity clean to transform herself into other people. Although she models for her photographs, we gather more about the intellectual concerns of an era than about Sherman herself. But Emin and Sherman's objectives are similar: to provoke questions about the way women live today.

Until May 27, Sprüth Magers, London tel 020 7408 1613