Christopher Williams: Open Letter – The Family Drama Refunctioned? (From the Point of View of Production)

Christopher Williams studied under the legendary West Coast artist John Baldessari, and boy, does it show. His work has that exact same balance of conceptual rigour and too-cool-for-school styling, as revealed in this sly little headache of an exhibition.

This is a show of photography, about photography. Lots of the images feature such inoffensive subject matter that it barely registers on the eye: an ear of wheat against a cloudless sky; gleaming cookware; grinning blonde kids in the back of a car. More interesting are his cross-sectional pictures of camera lenses. These photographs of gleaming, intricate screws and components are essentially beautiful photographs of things that take beautiful photographs. That they're displayed on (purposely) battered stud walls covered in bits of masking tape only adds to the feeling that Williams is trying to say: 'Hey! Don't take everything you see at face value. There's always something else going on behind the scenes.'

But it's when you head upstairs to the first floor that things start to get truly baffling–since it's exactly the same as downstairs. Or… is it? The grinning blonde kids in this picture don't look quite so cheerful. If their smiles were for the camera in the downstairs image, this is where they think it isn't watching. More fool them. With Machiavellian glee, Williams seems to want to seduce us while showing us how he's seducing us, and deceive us while showing us how he's deceiving us. And if that sounds like he's having his (beautifully photographed) cake and eating it, well, so be it.

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Christopher Williams's recent exhibitions have been prefaced by open letters. Sometimes addressed to the models participating in his images, the letters act as a strategy that cuts across intimate dialogues and public debate, unveiling constructions of the self and the institutions of everyday life. He opens up the deep complexity of institutional structures while putting human detail into the frame.

Williams's newest images reveal objects of domestic consumer desire: designer cooking pots here, stalks of wholesome wheat there, or the back window of a car with happy children performing for the camera. The labor on which this image of perfection depends is revealed textually, as the letter alludes to instructions and dialogues from within the photo studio, drawing attention to the control of gesture in the production of normality.

Williams retains an interest in the exhibition at the same time. Present are the temporary walls that form a key part of Williams's vocabulary. A specimen from the artist's collection has been refabricated six times–notes, holes, and all–positioned to narrow and unsettle the regularity of the gallery space. The theme of repetition traverses walls, imagery, and technologies, but takes aim specifically at the reproduction of conditions within everyday life, especially toward institutions that have hidden their institutionalizing tendencies. Williams makes another distinctive gesture at the show's beginning: He turns the gallery's front desk and entryway, understood as a kind of nonspace, into a site. Using the reception area to display his letters, he extends the parentheses of the gallery frame–now the desk staff comes out of the shadows and into our view.

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