Sam Taylor-Wood

Contemporary Art Museum, Houston

Closes October 5, 2008
by Peter Mowris

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      Sam Taylor-Wood, Pietà, 2001
      35 mm film/DVD projection
      1 minute 57 seconds
      © The artist. Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)

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      Two days before her exhibition opened at CAMH in Houston, Sam Taylor-Wood attended Queen Elizabeth’s Woman Achievers Luncheon at Buckingham Palace, where she mingled with author J.K. Rowling, designer Vivienne Westwood and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The UK tabloid Daily Mail covered Taylor-Wood’s lunch with the queen alongside features on stars like David Beckham and Madonna. In this world, increased scrutiny of celebrities continues to feed popular desire for representations of these stars, Taylor-Wood among them. The Daily Mail kept its readers posted on her survival of both colon and breast cancer and in December 2007, she posed nude for Harper’s Bazaar. At CAMH, Taylor-Wood’s potently self-reflexive exploration of this celebrity dominates her small-scale retrospective. The artist behaves like a mole or an anthropologist doing fieldwork in the world of fame and power. She caters to the discourse of desire and fame and draws from it for the subject matter of her art.

      Like most retrospectives, the show lacks a standout piece. The artist herself is the most conspicuous theme, because she appears in works that constitute a little over half the exhibition of her oeuvre from 1995-2007. Ten video pieces, three of which are located in separate rooms, balance a series of seven photographs called Crying Men, two self-portrait series and two individual photos—one of Taylor-Wood and the other of a tree meant to symbolize her.

      Artists often use their own bodies as part of their work. But unlike most artists, Taylor-Wood can safely rely on a British viewer’s knowledge of her guest appearances and battles with cancer, knowledge that is on the same level as Americans’ familiarity with Britney Spears’s questionable sanity. Taylor-Wood’s tenuous mortality formed the subject matter of two different series of photographs that form a good third of the exhibition. In the series Self Portrait Suspended (2004), the artist appears to float in midair, but her hair hangs limp. She is weightless yet heavy; still in possession of her body but ready to leave the earth at any moment. In Bram Stoker’s Chair (2005), the chair casts no shadow, thus suggesting a vampire and its strange relationship to life and death. In these two series, Taylor-Wood expresses her tenuous vitality of the last decade allegorically. Her fame allows her autobiographical gesture to parallel more conventional exposé and feed the discourse of desire that she simultaneously addresses.

      Taylor-Wood also creates work in which recognizable celebrities appear less for who they “are” than for what they symbolize in the press. In Pieta (2001), she adopts the role of the Virgin Mary and cradles the actor Robert Downey, Jr., who by 2001 was in the fifth year of his very public battle against drug addiction. Taylor-Wood’s vignette encapsulates the symbolic value of Downey’s body in the media. Likewise, David (2004), which takes its form from Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Sleep, conveys Beckham’s sex symbol status, which has expunged his vocational skill at soccer. In these works, Taylor-Wood fashions both men in playful conformity with symbols they have already become.

      Taylor-Wood also represents fame without the conditions on which her performers generally rely. In the series Crying Men, the artist asked stars like Ed Harris and Hayden Christianson to make themselves cry for her. Harris cried when he played Jackson Pollock; Christianson when he played Anakin Skywalker. But in Crying Men, no larger filmic text exists to which the emotion corresponds. By altering the structure of performance, Taylor-Wood disrupts one’s expectations. These men have earned their respect for playing other people. When they play themselves, the appearance of performance in the midst of overt selfhood sends the men’s performances outside accustomed conditions of reception. In contrast to the works including Downey and Beckham, the figures in Crying Men gain poignancy by escaping their expected roles.

      This notion of the self as a role that one plays resembles the artist’s use of herself as subject matter in her work, in which she generates complexity by merging or effacing conditions of more conventional beliefs one may have about the relationship between art and life. In addition to that basic relationship, Taylor-Wood offers a deeper inquiry of herself as an immediately public topic, thus making a retrospective of her work very appropriate, even if an American viewer risks missing entirely the status she has in the UK that forms such a significant element of her work. In this context, one best appreciates her vignettes of private experience in the space of public consumption.

      Peter Mowris is a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a dissertation about Surrealism and nerve psychology and will present a paper on Max Ernst's Microbes at the upcoming CAA conference in Los Angeles in February of 2009 at the much anticipated Surrealism au Naturel panel.

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