The Image of the City: Sarah Morris at CAC New Orleans

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The painting "Hybrid Solar Eclipse [Rio]" by Sarah Morris, showing over brightly colored overlapping circles arranged in a grid.
Sarah Morris, Hybrid Solar Eclipse [Rio], 2013; household gloss paint on canvas, 84.25 by 84.25 inches.
What does it mean to make an image of a contemporary urban city, and how does one go about doing so? What patterns and typologies would repeat themselves across the global metropolitan network, and what qualities would remain and unrepeatable? Is there something inherently singular about Los Angeles or Dubai, or is our globalized world rendering the local vernaculars of major cities ever more homogenous and, perhaps, abstract?

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British-born, New York-based artist Sarah Morris’s exhibition “Sawdust and Tinsel,” on view at the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans through June 17, presents viewers with a strong aesthetic vocabulary to think through these urgent questions—a response mediated through the visual and critical lens of 20th-century modernism. Through repetition, an appropriation of the modernist grid, and an excitable palette of flat neon colors, Morris’s paintings point to the simple grammar that encodes experiences in metropolitan centers and responds to a world emptied and filled by the logics of late capitalism.

For Morris, to engage with the contemporary city is not just to re-present the urban center and its unique material realities (skylines, a grid of streets, landmarks), but to tease out the underlying aesthetics of corporatism, industrialization, geopolitics, and commodity propaganda that render industry and culture increasingly indistinguishable.

Yet this is not to say that Morris’s paintings are mere variations on a theme, for within the precise terms and structures of her abstract works lies an infinite number of compositional choices and formal combinations. This radically generative variety is signaled to the viewer immediately upon entering the gallery in a short phrase of three “city portraits” of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, bound into space by a vivid marigold-painted wall: Bovespa [Rio] (2013); Denuza Leão [Rio] (2012); and Rio Atlantica [Rio] (2013).

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Installation view of Morris's exhibition "Sawdust and Tinsel" at the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, showing three square, geometric paintings displayed against a white wall.

Installation view of Morris’s exhibition “Sawdust and Tinsel” at the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, including the paintings (l to r): Bovespa [Rio], 2013; Denuza Leão [Rio], (2012); and Rio Atlantica [Rio], (2013). [Photo: Alex Marks.]
While Morris’s electric colors and sophisticated formal patterns point to Rio’s exuberant carnival culture and local interpretation of high modernism (specifically the iconic architecture and graphic work of Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer), her paintings also embrace high modernism’s bold goal of addressing the homogeneity of place instead of its particularity.

For Morris, “modern” is no longer a synonym for progress and originality but describes endless change within a shallow set of terms provided by global capitalism. Like a still image of a kaleidoscope frozen in time and space, Morris’s works suggest a spectacular, virtual modernism—one that refuses the affected novelty and autonomy suggested by much of abstraction’s history and rhetoric of offering a sexy, cool, repetitive style of visual propaganda.

Slick and precise with no evidence of the artist’s hand, Morris’s paintings intentionally direct the viewer to the surface, to the repeatable patterns and formulaic terms of life under the specter of capital. These paintings tease us with their dynamic, excitable combinations yet are eager to reveal their permutational relationship to one another.

Installation view of Sawdust and Tinsel, with Morris’s painting Taqa [Abu Dhabi] (2015) at center. [Photo: Alex Marks.]
Whether it is Rio, Abu Dhabi, Paris, or London, Morris’s paintings collect the “after-images” of a system of cities that is larger than the individual, united by the unspoken “complicities” between commerce, industry, culture, media, and politics that create the contemporary metropolitan experience. [1]

Since 1998, Morris has been making and exhibiting films alongside her painted works, many of which are deeply connected to her interest in major urban cities. They often focus on the overwhelming constellation of quotidian experience that pulses within these gargantuan communities of people, traffic, industries, and events.

Installation view of Sarah Morris’s 2012 film Rio a CAC New Orleans. [Photo: Alex Marks.]
Rio (2012), one of two films presented in this exhibition, presents 88 minutes of a city that never tires. Morris meditates on a fast-paced and pulsing city expertly arranged in terms of urban planning, but fractured by the brutal realities of socioeconomic injustice. Oscillating from an equestrian race to moonscapes, a national landmark to an anonymous street corner, from Carnival preparations to still shots of Brazilian commodities, Morris cruises with her camera in tow, documenting the dynamic simultaneity of financial, industrial, and media activities that propels the city of Rio.

The aggressive electronic soundtrack, composed by Morris’s collaborator Liam Gillick, adds an additional layer to Morris’s film and expands the terms of the artist’s engagement with the visual data and iconography of global urban capitalism by overwhelming our senses. Morris sees the city of today in a constant state of flux, as complex and mesmerizing as it is disorienting and terrifying, and her work provides a surface (whether painted or filmic) that reifies this dialectical proposal.


1. Pulled from the following quote by Sarah Morris from Bettina Funcke’s essay “Shift to Liquid” in the exhibition catalogue Sarah Morris: Bye Bye Brazil,  London: White Cube, 2013, pg. 2: “I experience and see the paintings in this same manner: visceral after-images, interfaces sometimes representing something that is repulsive, overwhelming; a system that is larger than you, with moments of inherent complicitness, and yet distance or failure built in.”

Jordan Amirkhani is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. In addition to her academic work, she serves as a regular contributor to numerous national and international arts publications including Artforum and  Momus, receiving a prestigious grant from Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation in 2017 for her criticism.

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