Sam Taylor-Wood b. 1967
Pietà (2001)

35mm Film/DVD Duration: 1 minute 57 seconds

In the large video projection "Pietà," facing the desk at Matthew Marks Gallery, the artist Sam Taylor Wood labors to support the draped body of Robert Downey Jr. Why him, one might ask, and for that matter, why her? Why ask, is the likely reply. Taylor-Wood has appropriated widely in the past-from Atlas to Roman orgy scenes (updated to the present day) to Hollywood movies. Here, as elsewhere in her work, surface registers of emotion and physical distress take the place of narrative. The pietà becomes an icon of exhaustion and distress, in her hands. Or, to put it differently, exhaustion and distress become iconic, if only by association. Elsewhere, a young woman is depicted morphing into distress, frame by frame in slow, slow motion. Taylor-Wood has returned several times in her career to this approach, breaking down highly charged scenarios with a wry slow-mo detachment, like a female Freud liberated by an encounter with Marcel Marceau. A closer analogy might be early photographic studies of the emotions: Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals or Hugh Diamond's studies of the mentally ill in the 1850's. She approaches her subjects, at times (not always, by any means; as, for example, the early "Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank," not shown here) with a similar analytic curiosity, a similarly unremitting urge to defamiliarize. One misses, in these works, the visceral or the raw. Perhaps, however, that is Taylor-Wood's point. A photograph of a nude male laid out like Holbein's dead Christ appears so matter of fact, so drained of significance, that the idea of death asserts itself with the chill subtlety of a business card dropped on a dinner setting. Similarly, a series of small richly colored photographs of a couple having intercourse decomposes the act analytically without titillation or decorative panache that the tones and choreography of bodies would at first suggest. Here is sex, post-Hefner, post-Koons and -Mapplethorpe, post-voyeurism. It is pleasant enough, but the erotic epiphany is elsewhere, or is not to be had at all. In this context, the image of the artist holding up a dead hare is the most hopeful work in the current show. The artist's deadpan vulnerability-the photograph makes a punning allusion to her difficult recovery from cancer-suggests a return to the defiance and surrealism of her "Soliloquies" (1998-2000) and "Five Revolutionary Seconds" (1995-98). Somewhere between sex and death passion may yet emerge. In the meantime, Sam Taylor-Wood's work displays the stimulus, even the pleasures of the candidly unresolved. -- Chris Moylan