New York

Sarah Morris


In his classic 1854 essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” Thomas De Quincey argues that if you learn of a murder before or as it happens then you ought to view it ethically (i.e. you ought to try to prevent it). However, if you only learn of a murder after it has happened why not view it esthetically, since there is nothing you can do? In her first solo show, “CITIZENS,” 1992, Sarah Morris tried to minimize the difference between these two poles. The esthetics emerged in an elegant series of murals derived from news photos of fairly recent murders, some quite memorable (like the mass-murder record set last year by George Hennard, in Killeen, Texas) and others less so. However, to add a spark of tension to these thrill-killer esthetics, Morris strove to create a sense of immediacy and urgency within the gallery: the only thing on a pedestal in this show was a “live” radio scanner tuned to intercept local police transmissions. Apparently, the worst thing to come over the scanner (during business hours, anyway) was a report of a 16-year-old girl brandishing a gun in a McDonald’s. Nevertheless, the scanner’s constant crackle was a caveat that news of some great evil going down in Gotham could at any moment pour into the KunstHall.

Morris’ work is contingent upon the unpredictable eruptions of murder itself; she makes her works as the murders occur, as they flood the media, showering the perpetrators with their fifteen minutes of infamy. In keeping with this sense of immediacy, the artist painted murals on two walls but left two other walls blank, as if to imply that the installation was really an endless work in progress. (If that 16-year-old girl had offed some McDonald’s customers, would she have received her own wall?) One mural simply reproduced a map of Killeen, Texas. The other mural was a painted simplification, in black outlines against the white wall, of an AP photo of “the house in Little Neck, L.I., where Andrew Brooks opened fire, killing his father and three more people and wounding two others before taking a hostage in a house a few blocks away,” as the caption explained. A suburban house with some cops standing around—so what? Where were the mangled corpses, the evil killer?

As in this mural, all the pieces in this show were rendered in black and white, elegant as a tuxedo but utterly banal. Morris’ drawings show mundane maps, families or bystanders crying, cops hanging around a crime scene with their hands in their pockets. The two paintings in the show were the only works to focus explicitly on a perp: Character Sketch #1, 1992, reiterates the words bewildered neighbors or precinct shrinks might use to describe a murderer (eccentric, hostile, unemployed, time-bomb, etc.), while Richard Law, August 9, 1991, 1991, shows the subject in a photo dredged up from his high school yearbook via a newspaper reproduction. It’s all really banal, but that is precisely the point: evil is banal, it festers behind the closed doors of these nice suburban homes. No one believes anymore, as they did in the 19th century, that murderers actually look the part—deformed craniums, simian facial features, etc. John Q. Public, Jeffrey Dahmer, how can you tell the difference?

Keith Seward