New York

Sam Taylor-Wood

Matthew Marks Gallery

Sam Taylor-Wood’s installation Third Party, 1999, surrounds visitors with action and din: Seven DVD projections (transferred from 16 mm film) play on the four walls of a darkened room, each image showing a separate fragment of a noisy party. You hear that noise on the sound track—the percolating buzz of a crowd, with drinks flowing, talk popping, and dance music jerking you around, all bass and beat. As if at a real party, you have to decide where to spend your capital of attention. The largest image is a likely first choice: It shows the singer Marianne Faithfull, always magnetic to the eye. Watching her sit and smoke, though, you eventually realize that she too is watching, and you turn elsewhere to find out what she sees.

The party, it turns out, has a plot: the messy tension between a husband and his wife, who is flirting with another man. The three appear on different walls, entering each other’s space only as, say, the man’s hand reaching to light the woman’s cigarette. Hubby (Ray Winstone) sits sourly on a couch, looking hostile; after a while you feel sorry for him. Wife (Saskia Reeves) and potential lover (Adrian Dunbar) chat and pose, all smiles and display. Faithfull, a presiding deity, beholds all. But the real story involves Taylor-Wood’s deployment of her seven cameras and her placement of the resulting movies around the space, so that, passing from projection to projection (all different sizes and shapes), viewers could gradually work out a geography of the party, figure out the relationships among the characters, and separate scraps of their conversation from the overall racket. The process of the piece is the emergence of this carefully coherent structure out of visual and aural noise.

Taylor-Wood clearly knows her parties—maybe a little too well. Her work comes alive with this subject; the photographs also on view, from her 1998–99 “Soliloquies” series, seemed forced by comparison. Each is a large C-print with a narrow horizontal photograph running bandlike along its bottom, a structure inspired by the Renaissance altarpiece and predella. And the images themselves are full of art-historical references: The pose, for instance, of a naked young man who might be sleeping, seen above a view of empty parkland, evokes Mantegna’s Christ, prone and dead. The works have their aesthetic and Freudian subtexts to puzzle out, and these can hold the viewer a certain while, but the elaborateness of contrivance and production seems for the moment to outweigh the return. With night life, though, Taylor-Wood turns electric.

Taylor-Wood’s native art world is the YBA scene of contemporary London, for which it is tempting to view Third Party as a synecdoche. If this is true, artmaking there would seem to involve an amphetamine social life and a shallow camaraderie complicated by bitter but suppressed competition. One sequence—a view of wine glasses, beer bottles, and an overflowing ashtray, presumably a nod to the Dutch still-life tradition—may be intended to suggest that history’s richest periods and places of art production have been no different; but if the work is an apologia pro vita sua, its immediacy suffers no harm. Encompassed on all sides by movies, each showing ten minutes of action in a single take, you can feel as if you really are at Taylor-Wood’s party. Nudging up against cinema’s old dream of becoming as real as reality, she has made a work that seems both familiar and new—new in that its artifice is novel, familiar in that it feels like life, particularly if you encounter life as a loud experience that you want to enjoy but find jammed with subtle tortures.

David Frankel