David Shaw (Viggo Mortenson) is a “painter” who is having an affair with Emily Taylor (Gwyneth Paltrow), the wealthy wife of an even wealthier industrialist (Michael Douglas). Shaw is said to be “not half bad with a brush” although his work seems to consist mainly of large format black and white photographs to which he does something expressive, such as splattering them with paint or covering them with brightly colored tape. You may remember this kind of thing from tenth grade—like a teenager searching for something to say, he is simply indulging in what he finds visually pleasing (i.e., pictures of his girlfriend). Going through the motions of what he thinks an artist is supposed to do, he decorates the photos with various art supplies, ultimately adding nothing.
As it turns out, many of the artworks seen in the film are Mortensen’s own, and he has had gallery shows in Santa Monica and New York City, among other places. He is also a poet in real life, which may account for trite phrases such as “altar every soul” (sic) randomly juxtaposed over Shaw’s pictures.
Unlike Mortensen, the character he portrays appears to have some level of art world recognition. An early scene in the film takes place at the Met Museum during a black-tie gala, where he is conversing with some of the guests. As the camera approaches, a man in a tuxedo is in the middle of saying, “…the bulk of the temple’s hieroglyphics are supplications to the gods of fertility.” For some reason, this rambling prompts the woman next to him to exclaim breathily, “I do believe I know his work!” and then suggests a studio visit. At this point Shaw notices the object of his affection has entered the room and he wanders away, affirming he is a true romantic and values love more than a potential sale or the attention of stuffy socialites.
Shaw’s studio is in fact a massive live-work space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Though raw and unfinished (the bath tub is in the middle of the floor), it appears to be at least 5,000 square feet. Even in 1998, this kind of real estate would have surely been prohibitively expensive for an artist who shows with “a couple of small galleries” that carry him “when there’s space.” Of course we find out later that (spoiler alert) he is actually a con man who steals from his wealthy lovers and then skips town, because artists are dirty and dishonest and could never make a living the way decent people do.