Sam Taylor-Wood at Matthew Marks Gallery

Sam Taylor-Wood, Pieta (2001), 35 mm film; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

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Standing in the Matthew Marks Gallery watching the videos of Sam Taylor-Wood, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was standing in the Matthew Marks Gallery watching the videos of Sam Taylor-Wood. How does one look at these things?

While some galleries offer benches–a courtesy not extended at Marks–there have been few videos worth sitting for. Many videos are, in fact, unsittable: Doug Aitken’s current video installation at the 303 Gallery purposefully denies the viewer a firm vantage point. Most videos don’t aspire to the status of film, anyway. They want to be art–you know, like a painting. Unlike a painting–whose entirety is forever fixed, front and center–a video reveals itself on a schedule, not at the viewer’s leisure, which entails clock-watching, foot-shuffling and promotes the inescapable sense that video art is something we tolerate in the name of progress.

The centerpiece at Marks is an updated version of Michelangelo’s Pietà, wherein Ms. Taylor-Wood casts herself as the Virgin and Robert Downey Jr. as Jesus. The piece is shameless; not only does it trivialize a sacred image, it confuses facile appropriation of a great work of art with the great work of art itself.

Lest you think Ms. Taylor-Wood only exploits monuments of the Western world, there are also “homages” to Japanese erotic prints–basically an excuse to take some dirty pictures of (as the press release reassures us) “a man and a woman in a long-term relationship.” Elsewhere, she’s “inspired” by Hans Holbein, encourages the growth of mold and takes photographs of cows.

Along with Bill Viola, Shirin Neshat and Tony Oursler, Ms. Taylor-Wood is a prominent practitioner of video art. But she’s not the best of the bunch. Whatever we may ultimately think of the art of Mr. Viola, Ms. Neshat or Mr. Oursler, they bring to their ventures a cinematic rationale; why video is their chosen art form isn’t in doubt. All Ms. Taylor-Wood brings to her videos is a camera, a budget and a truckload of pretense.

(c) 2002 Mario Naves

A version of this article originally published in the October 22, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.

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