It's a typical morning for Cindy Sherman. She eats a bowl of granola, kisses her husband as he leaves for work, watches TV talk shows, does her aerobics. But around 11:30, as she putters around in the bedroom, she turns into someone quite different from your ordinary young Manhattan housewife. Reaching into a box of plastic eyeballs and fingers, she draws out a wide nose and glues it to her face. Her smooth skin becomes wrinkled and pockmarked as she daubs on theatrical paint. After tugging on a tattered wig and a pair of shattered eyeglasses, she slips into a filthy, torn business suit and flicks on several stage lights, producing an eerie orange glow. Then she flops down on the floor next to a mattress she has ripped and stained, a pack of plastic rats she found in a joke shop and a pile of fake rat droppings made of rice dipped in black paint. Her eye on a mirror a few feet away, she presses a button with her toe and—click! Cindy Sherman has created the photograph Untitled #178.

Using herself as a canvas, Cindy Sherman, 33, has become the chameleon of the art world. Movie stars, battered women, a teenage boy, a deformed dunce—Sherman has cast herself as all these and many more during the past decade, using a timer-driven Nikon camera and a loft full of cheap props. Shot at odd angles and often blown up to larger-than-life size, her photos transmit an unsettling mood or suggest an entire life's accumulation of tragedies. Her prints, now priced from $6,000 to $9,000, are in the collections of the world's top museums, including New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery in London. Nation critic Arthur C. Danto has called her currently touring retrospective (at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art until January 17) "one of the most arresting artistic achievements of this decade."

Sherman has been idolized by Manhattan trendies ever since her first New York City show seven years ago, yet she claims she is misunderstood. "Everyone thinks these are self-portraits," she says, "but they aren't meant to be. I just use myself as a model because I know I can push myself to extremes, make each shot as ugly or goofy or silly as possible." Her images often come in series with themes. In the late '70s she mimicked old movie stills and their peculiar blend of fantasy and reality. "I wasn't at all concerned about photographic quality," says Sherman, who develops her own slides. "I wanted them to look like the cheap prints you find in drugstores around Times Square." In 1981 she lampooned soft porn by assuming erotic poses and a frightened or distraught expression that vitiated the sex appeal totally. In 1983 she sent up fashion photos by posing in stylish clothes with a greasy or bruised complexion.

Lately Sherman has been exploring more gruesome themes. A 1987 print shows her anguished face reflected in a pair of sunglasses lying on a beach blanket that is covered with junk food and vomit. "Those grosser pictures may be aimed at the art world," she confesses. "I got lots of very positive publicity, and it gave me the creeps. I wanted to make something that would dare people to hype it."

Sherman's husband, video artist Michel Auder, says her focus on the grotesque never extends into her own life. "As a joke at the last show," says Auder, 43, "I kept telling people, 'Look what I have to live with. That stuff was right in our bedroom.' But those images really don't have anything to do with her personality. She creates them and exorcises them."

Sherman began striking poses early, while growing up in Huntington Beach, Long Island. Her father, an engineer, and her late mother, a reading teacher, "took pictures of me dressing up in my grandmother's old clothes, with socks in a bra that would hang down to my waist," she says. Cindy took up painting as "something to do when I watched TV" and later studied art at State University of New York at Buffalo College. Artist Robert Longo, her classmate and longtime boyfriend, encouraged her to try a new medium. "I would change my face with makeup and get into characters at home for fun," says Sherman. "So Robert said, 'Let's photograph what you're doing.' " After they moved to New York City in 1977, Sherman scouted the streets for backdrops. "I would duck into a doorway and put on a wig, makeup and a change of clothes," she says. "People would walk by and look at me as if they were thinking, 'Who is this woman?' " In 1979, after she and Longo parted, she took over the camera herself and later moved the shoots indoors.

Sherman's unusual subjects seem to strike a common chord. While installing her show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan last summer, she got a surprisingly warm response from the security guards. "They seemed to identify with the work," she says. "It didn't intimidate them, although I'm sure they also thought I was out of my mind." Her fans may think so too, but clearly they have no objection. Recently she has begun taking herself out of her pictures and using friends instead, but viewers haven't batted an eye. "They look at pictures I took of my husband and a 5-year-old girl," Sherman says, a bit baffled, "and they still think it's me."