Artist, stylist, film director, screenwriter, MacArthur Genius Grant winner. Cindy Sherman has a lot of labels.

But it’s as a photographer and model (for herself) that Sherman has had the greatest impact on the art world. For more than three decades the New York-based artist has created a spectacular array of characters and caricatures. “She’s not only the model and the photographer,” says Ellie Buttrose, QAGOMA’s associate curator for international contemporary art, “she does all the make-up, hair and costuming. She has an amazing breadth of talent.”

Sherman first became internationally renowned for her Untitled Film Stills series in which she depicted herself as characters in hypothetical B movies. She has since become better known as part of the Pictures Generation of artists, along with Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo and Laurie Simmons, among others.

A major Sherman solo exhibition starts at GOMA this Saturday. It focuses on her work since 2000, when the artist returned to using herself in her images.

Highlights include the Society Portraits, whose wealthy older characters loom over the viewer in a five-metre-high mural installation. The women have an engineered elegance to them, as if to compensate for an emotional scarcity in their lives. The works confront society’s thoughts on ageing and the visibility of older women in the public eye. “You think of conversations about Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep and how there are limited roles for older women in film,” Buttrose says. “Cindy’s work reflects that.”

Reaching for unattainable ideals is common to Sherman’s characters. The inspiration for her funny and grotesque women in her Head Shots series came from aspiring Hollywood actresses and Hamptons socialites. The photographs lampoon the labour involved in maintaining feminine appearances: think gaudy make-up, ill-fitting wigs, misaligned clothes, inflated lips and eyebrows that are unequivocally not on trend. Buttrose points out that by inserting herself into her photographs, Sherman sets herself up as the butt of the joke. Like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, or, more recently, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Amy Schumer’s Inside Amy Schumer, Sherman makes herself complicit in the ideas she satirises.

Sherman has a rich history of collaboration with companies such as Comme Des Garçons, Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton, but that hasn’t muzzled her critiques of the fashion industry. The Balenciaga and Chanel photographs included in the GOMA exhibition are in stark contrast with industry ideals of beauty and elegance. For the Vogue-commissioned Balenciaga images, attention-hungry socialites preen and pose for the camera. The Chanel series plays on the trope of exotic locations by placing stiff models against barren, bleak landscapes. “She has shifted the fashion world,” Buttrose says. “When people commission her to do projects with them, she gets ugly images printed and somehow the fashion world embraces that.”

Now in her sixties, Sherman’s relevance continues. “Sherman is still making work that we all can relate to in some way,” Buttrose says. “The great thing about this exhibition is that it reflects what’s happening in the world.”

The Cindy Sherman exhibition runs from May 28 to October 3 2016 at QAGOMA.