Sam Samore’s carefully composed photographs recently on view at D’Amelio Terras are a far cry from “The Suicidist,” the 1973 series for which he is best known. Those black-and-white images depict the young artist posing as if having taken his own life, his body sprawled out on a living-room floor with a vacuum-cleaner hose in his mouth, or slumped in a desk chair after having jabbed himself with an arrow. This series, and a group of photographs that revisited the playing-dead subject 30 years later, made up Samore’s first solo museum exhibition in the U.S., at MoMA PS1 in 2006.
Samore has always explored alternative ways of plotting narratives, and particularly narratives that underscore what he sees as the isolated human condition. The “Suicidist” images are only one example of this preoccupation, which has also materialized in shots of random people on the street that he asked other photographers to take for him. Although the images may seem strangely familiar, and we may muse on their subjects’ habits, professions or personal lives, we remain removed from the personalities behind the faces. At D’Amelio Terras, Samore’s latest exploration of isolation appeared in a group of fragmented portraits of women titled “The Dark Suspicion.”
The poet Max Henry, who has collaborated with Samore, has suggested that the artist’s new work treads painterly territory while his prior work looks more cinematic. For years Samore has referred to his photographs as “paintings” and named Caravaggio and Bronzino among his key influences. In “The Dark Suspicion” images, this shift runs deeper than the bright blues, yellows and pinks that have replaced a black-and-white palette. For whereas Samore once aimed to tell a more concrete story, he now asks us to construct the narrative to an extent traditionally specific to painting. We are not shown the plot, as in films. Instead, we are left to author it using the lips, lashes and other fragments provided.
The Dark Suspicion #1 (all works 2011) is a photographic landscape of in- and out-of-focus red lips and eyelids heavily coated with blue eyeliner. Samore’s life-size visions of women whose faces we never see in full are like impressions of passersby glimpsed while walking urban streets. It strikes me that this city dweller (the artist divides his time among Bangkok, Paris and New York) aims not only to play down the differences between photography and painting but also to create allegories for our perceptions of people rather than to represent actual people—shades of women as opposed to women.
The straight, red-blonde hair and section of a face cropped by the picture’s edge in The Dark Suspicion #5 may summon our memories of an acquaintance with similar features. But what, Samore may be asking, can we really conclude about this woman? And more generally, what’s in an appearance? With this show, the artist continues to refine his work to fewer but stronger touchstones.
Photo: Sam Samore: The Dark Suspicion #5, 2011, ink on rag paper, 34 by 60 inches; at D’Amelio Terras.