New York

Sarah Morris

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

The artist-patron relationship has yielded plenty of great art over the centuries, from Michelangelo’s over-the-top Moses on the tomb of Pope Julius II to Velázquez’s dutiful Las Meninas and Goya’s sneering The Family of Charles IV. Given that Sarah Morris’s patrons are the modern Medici of Hollywood, one might have hoped for a similarly trenchant portrait of twenty-first-century elites from her film Los Angeles, 2004—or at least a compelling view of the city after which her fifth work in the medium is named. Instead, she offers viewers a morass of cliché; a montage of tourist-board images without the steady hand of a Richard Prince to turn them into knowing art; a Koyaanisqatsi without Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass; an Access Hollywood without the cheerfully ridiculous Pat O’Brien to act as our guide.

Access can hardly have been the issue. Shot in the ten days leading up to the 2004 Academy Awards and set to music composed by the artist’s husband, Liam Gillick, the twenty-six-minute, twelve-second film opens inside a John Lautner house before moving outside, past buildings and freeways. As the film progresses we visit a casting session, watch a Xanax prescription being filled, scan the Grill during power-lunch hour, go inside I. M. Pei–designed Creative Artists Agency, drop in on the set of Hollywood Squares, attend a Lakers game, hang out at a rehearsal for Oscars presenters, and finally make it to the red carpet outside the main event. Proximity to the machinery of power is underscored via cameos by Brad Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Motion Picture Association boss Jack Valenti, art collector and entertainment lawyer Jake Bloom, producer and actor Robert Evans, director Brett Ratner (who offers a particularly intimate glimpse while changing clothes in the backseat of a car, with the help of a valet), and a host of other “insider” gets.

The most interesting parts of the film are those in which Morris hews most closely to her purported thesis focusing, as stated in the press release, on the city’s “role as a center for image production” by offering images of the paparazzi and robot-like cameras poised over every spectacle. She effectively demonstrates how Hollywood reproduces itself infinitely, but rather than further exploring this idea, she trots out a predictable set of LA tropes. Her subjects act in the crass manner one by now expects of the Hollywood upper crust—Evans is shaved by his topless girlfriend; Ratner sticks his ass in the camera lens—and their boorishness is compounded by the abundance of clichés with which the filmmaker surrounds them: the Xanax, the Botox, the teeth whitening, the tanning beds. Morris claims to be “exploring” the narcissism of Hollywood, yet her film relies on the most stock images imaginable.

The only sound is Gillick’s music, a cross between LFO, Autechre, and Jean-Michel Jarre that bounces along with the images, turning the film into a glittering music video devoid of psychological depth. Even Hollywood’s power and vanity seem to suffer from a skewed and superficial depiction—were we to accept Morris’s film as representative, we would be forced to believe that cosmetic procedures were only ever performed on women. Compared to nuanced considerations of the city by writers James Ellroy, Mike Davis, and Bruce Wagner or artists like Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Paul McCarthy, Morris’s view of Los Angeles is profoundly vapid, cynical—and unoriginal. Perhaps her reiteration of the place’s simple-mindedness is meant ironically, but it’s hard to see any evidence of that among the uninflected night shots of the glittering metropolis.

Martha Schwendener