Sam Samore’s new show, “Accumulation of Shapes (Part One),” appealed to a certain kind of spectator—clingy and obsessive in relationships. Samore exhibits an intense desire for his subject but you can’t tell if it’s mutual.
The photographs are more cerebral and glowy than the fetishized, cartoonish aesthetic of film noir that Samore alludes to. His black-and-white portraits of French actress Juliette Dol, printed in pigment ink, are cropped and spliced. A thin black bar in each work divides two prints selected from the same short sequence of exposures. They look bleak from a distance but when you get close the delicacy of the tones and subtle lighting bring a warmth and a humanity to the subject. Instead of glamorizing Dol with noir, Samore delves deep. He’s like a private investigator who misses the crucial frames needed to understand his person of interest. Or he’s intentionally hiding them from you.
The power of these images relies on the viewer’s own psychology. If you’ve ever been a little too into someone, standing before these images might send a ping to the back of your head, a reminder that sometimes you can be a creep. Samore seems to enjoy staring at someone he’s fond of so intently that he wants to stop time and roam around her space for a little while. It might be easier to really look at her once a print is made and hung on a wall and Dol can’t respond to his gaze. Maybe he could figure out something profound that he couldn’t otherwise, with the earth spinning and life happening all around the two of them. Perhaps it’s just her outer beauty he truly admires.
Obsession creates a rift or a split in the mind. Fantasy and reality never meet. Like the black bar dividing Samore’s composite images, there is a harsh void that the maker and viewer want to fill but can’t. What you’re left with is the moment before and the moment after a brief event. It’s a small fraction of time and you can easily guess what it would look like, but the drama caused by the intensity of the missing piece feels tragic, almost to the point where it should be mourned. Samore doesn’t show you an unbridled connection. Instead, you see a visually disrupted encounter that proves being this attached to a person will founder in the obsessor’s imagination.
The final image in the gallery, hung on the back wall, was the only one without a vertical bar. It’s a close-up of Dol’s face, so out of focus that she seems to be vanishing from real time and space. At a certain point, the obsessor always realizes it’s wrong to yearn for someone unattainable, but can’t detach completely. Naming the series “Accumulation of Shapes (Part One)” implies that the artist has collected love interests in the past and they have faded from distinct memory into abstract forms. The desire lingers, but now it’s time to focus on a newer, brighter subject.
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.