Robert Downey Jr. Plays Jesus for Artist Sam Taylor-Wood

Artist Sam Taylor-Wood's photograph "Wrecked" showed at the notorious 1999 "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum, which unleashed the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs), a group that includes provocateurs such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Jake and Dinos Chapman, on the American public. Then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani famously claimed the First Amendment didn't protect the "sick and disgusting" works and that taxpayer dollars shouldn't support them. Catholics were infuriated over Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary," an image of a black Madonna that incorporated actual elephant dung.

Interestingly, Taylor-Wood's large-scale photograph depicting the Last Supper with a central topless woman as Jesus didn't cause nearly as big a fuss as Ofili's painting. And Taylor-Wood would probably rather have it that way. Her photography and video work shares her fellow YBAs' audaciousness, but there's never an attempt at shock or a fascination for the lurid. "Sam Taylor-Wood," currently showing at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, is a delightful and captivating display of the artist's work, from the pre-­"Sensation" days to today.

If there's anything "sensational" about this show, it's Taylor-Wood's use of celebrities. One series of photographs, "Crying Men," captures movie stars in tears. First up, it's "Darth Vader" Hayden Christensen assuming the weepy pose, and it sets the tone for this hilarious series. None of these shots have a genuine feel; they look as if Taylor-Wood squeezed a few drops of Visine into each actor's eyes and said, "Show me sad," although, to be fair, Ed Harris may have insisted on employing his own "sense memory." It also seems like Taylor-Wood chose actors we rarely see in vulnerable states, like Daniel Craig — James Bond, crying? The most ridiculous portrait belongs to Laurence Fishburne, who sports two perfect tears on each cheek, his head haloed by a circular window. One might pontificate on fame and machismo as relevant themes at work here, but really they're just silly pictures of actors acting. They're probably the least interesting pieces in the show, like the hour-long video of David Beckham sleeping (go wild with your Warhol on that one), but there's no denying their pop-cultural appeal.

Taylor-Wood's employment of celebrity really scores when she places it within a familiar conceptual context, like Pietà, a two-minute video representing the famous image of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. Here, ­Taylor-Wood cradles Robert Downey Jr. in what seems like a direct take on Michelan­gelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, albeit in modern and minimal costume — Downey shirtless and barefoot, wearing black trousers. She strains to hold him up, letting him fall back slightly before regaining a firm cleave on his body. Downey Jr. doesn't so much play dead; rather, he seems in meditation, trying to fully relax into Taylor-Wood's arms, as a child would with its mother. In this minimal state, too, is the simple picture of two artists collaborating on a task — re-creating a famous image from art history. Would the piece be less powerful with an unknown actor as Jesus? Arguably, yes. It's difficult to deny the role Downey's personal struggles play here; it's impossible to disconnect from them in this context.

Art and art history play an important role in Taylor-Wood's video work, impressively realized in Still Life, a time-lapse video of fruit rotting. Unlike run-of-the-mill time-lapse, though, Taylor-Wood "stages" the image like a Renaissance painting: apples, pears and grapes on a wicker tray against a gray, stone-like background. As the fruit rapidly decomposes, fuzzy blue mold forms, looking like cotton candy, while a ghostly darkness develops on the wall, like a shadow of stench. Eventually, the fruit is transformed into something abstract and sludgy, then turning hard and porous like coral. And in a bizarre twist, Taylor-Wood has included a plastic disposable pen, lying there on the table next to the tray.

Taylor-Wood applies another conceptual approach to painting and photography with The Last Century. It's a British pub scene with a man and woman seated at a table, beer glasses in front of them, while musicians play in the background. During the seven-minute silent video, all four actors remain frozen in tableau while cars and people can be seen in motion though the pub windows. Eyes blink; body positions and expressions slightly shift. The man holds a burning cigarette that slowly burns down to a long withered ash before it finally falls onto the table, ending the mesmerizing piece.

Two videos incorporate sound in interesting ways. In Prelude in Air, a classical musician plays Bach on an "air cello," but unlike the air-guitar, there's nothing overblown or ironic in this performance. The musician plays it straight, and since the instrument is missing, a palpable emotion radiates from the man's face and body. He grits his teeth; he wrings vibrato off the invisible strings. Ascension uses rhythm to convey a state of limbo or perhaps a rising action. A man literally tap-dances on another man's chest while a dove perches on top of his head. It appears to represent a soul in flux, or a spirit emerging from a dead body. Eventually the dancer does a big finish and the dove flies away.

Ascension is just one example of Taylor-Wood's fascination with flux. She explores states of suspended animation in two photo series on display. In Bram Stoker's Chair, the artist appears to balance on a wooden chair, which is also precariously balancing on one of its legs. Her shadow is cast against the white wall, but not the chair's shadow (hence the vampiric title). To realize these impressive images, Taylor-Wood carefully rigged herself from a support with cables, and then digitally erased the rigging (and the chair's shadow). There's a vague eroticism to these photos, given that Taylor-Wood's in her underwear — then you notice who's on her underwear. It's Elmo.

In the Self Portrait Suspended series, Taylor-Wood is in her underwear again (no Elmo this time), and she appears to actually float in the middle of a room. Created essentially the same way as the Chair series, these images convey a more serious emotional quality. We've seen conceptual explorations of physicality and suspension in the outrageous, lustrous and pop-­referencing film projects of Matthew Barney, but Taylor-Wood pulls us in a more minimal direction, in which singular tasks or states convey a wealth of emotional stock. In all the "suspended" photos, Taylor-Wood's face is hidden, either turned away from the camera or concealed by her blond hair, and that adds a theme of anonymity to the artist's conceptual design — as in the "chair" photos, the faceless shadow. Juxtaposed with the presence of celebrity in the show, it adds a valuable dynamic to the exhibit. As we wander the gallery, we float somewhere in the network between the faceless and the famous.

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Troy Schulze
Contact: Troy Schulze