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.
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.
All about the look
Christopher Williams must be fed up with being called a conceptual photographer. The American artist has chosen to present the 50 works taken from across his career in this show wthout any explanations next to them; no wall texts, not even titles and dates. It's an interesting strategy, because he is, well, conceptual in his approach. Take the picture above, made in 2005. It is, we imagine, a woman after a shower or bath, with towels around her head and body. But it's much more than that: a reconstruction of an image from a Kodak photographic instruction guide from 1968, the clue being in the colour chart to the left of the photograph. Williams is using the language of advertising photography to point out the fakery that goes into getting it shiny and pristine.
But you don't need the back store to get this: the color chart instantly smacks down any suggestion that that smile is real or spontaneous.
William's idea is inspired: with no text, this show's all about looking, drawing your own conclusions and connections. For all the complex references to the history and the mechanisms of photography, these are also often beautiful, immaculately shot images, whether of a headlamp in a Citroen car, a dam in Switzerland or the back of a dishwasher.
I came away thinking that Williams genuinely loves his medium, as well as wanting to unpack it.
In his new exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery in east London, Christopher Williams breaks all the rules. For a start, some of the walls have been flown in from his recent show in Germany–and the captions on the works are from the Whitechapel's previous show, Adventures of the Black Square. The confusion these now-random captions cause for the viewer are as integral to the exhibition as the hanging of the prints, which tend to be well below the average eyeline. It's all emblematic of Williams' somewhat dogged conceptual thrust, and the attendant, seemingly willful, elusiveness of his work.
Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Williams came of age as a student at CalArts in the 1970s, where he was taught by playful conceptualist John Baldessari. If it seems that Baldessari's mischievous spirit informs the work of many younger photographers these days, Williams has long since condensed that spirit into a formal exploration of the medium and, in particular, its deployment in advertising. He uses photography to draw our attention to photography: what it is, what it does and what it means at a time when it is so ubiquitous and seductive.
Kodak Moments, Deconstructed
One of the most telling images in the Museum of Modern Art's beautiful but demanding survey of the Conceptual photographer Christopher Williams represents an act of elegant iconoclasm. It lays bare something most of us rarely see: the guts of a camera's lens. It is an amazing sight.
To make this photograph, Mr. Williams had a Dutch lens collector painstaking cut lengthwise through a German Zeiss Distagon wide-angle lens. Then, working with a studio photographer, Mr. Williams produced a big color close-up of a cross section that is as formal as an official oil portrait, as alluring as a high-end fashion shot and yet as startlingly exotic as an image from National Geographic.
The exposed mechanism, a tight jigsaw of stainless-steel and brass parts building toward the oculus, is intricate and majestic, even a little mystical, akin to the architecture of a chambered nautilus or a great cathedral.
"Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness" is, as a whole, a similar act of exposure. The nearly 100 photographs meander in their own cerebral way through fashion, portraiture, landscape and, especially, still life, and cover more than 30 years of work. But they are only part of a bigger, more complex picture.
As we speak
American artist Christopher Williams' major solo show at Kunsthalle Baden-Baden this summer and Dutch artist Willem de Rooij's current exhibition, 'Intolerance,' at Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, both highlight the connection between conceptualism and the image, between appropriateion and autonomy. Has referentiality in art, once polemical, become an orthodoxy? If so, is there a way out? The artists discussed these subjects, and much more, with Jörg Heiser. The images used to illustrate this conversation were selected by the artists.
What Does the Jellyfish Want?
I CAN'T BE ALONE IN FINDING A GREAT DEAL OF AFFECT IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS. This is dangerous to say, since affect in photography generally hews to subject matter—the pained look of a face, the pleasure or poignancy in a gesture—and it tends to be obvious, the easiest thing there is. Williams's most recent project, "For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle," is neither easy nor obvious. Its images bear no consistent theme, no singular style or technique, none of the normal signposts of a photographic body of work. Many of the photographs depict icons of twentieth-century industrial design set against monochromatic grounds—a cheap Soviet camera, a motorized French bicycle, a bright yellow Deutsche Post packing box. Images of a disassembled Jean Prouvé house and a Communist-era apartment tower provide architectural motifs. Portraits of female models, in and out of the shower, resemble prototypical magazine ads. If there is an affective logic to such work, it does not depend on the subject matter's rationality, but on distinctions among images, a kind of playful noise discovered in the process of viewing.
Williams has always used photography in a way quite distinct from other practitioners of the medium. Often he has declined to call himself a photographer at all. Since his student days at CalArts in the 1970s—where teachers such as Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Morgan Fisher, and Douglas Huebler provided a decidedly Conceptualist model for a group of young artists that also included Mike Kelley, John Miller, and Stephen Prina—Williams has approached photography as a means for responding to the material apparatus and discursive underpinnings of the medium itself. An adaptation of site-specificity's architectural prerogative to the condition of images, similar to that of his contemporary Louise Lawler, can be seen in projects that take institutional or mass media archives as both subject matter and critical object. The series "Angola to Vietnam*," 1989, for instance, takes as its starting point the Harvard Museum of Natural History's famed collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century glass flowers. With more than 3,000 life-size models of 847 species, the collection represents, in essence, a taxonomical fantasy borne of colonial reach. To determine which of these objects he would photograph, Williams reorganized the archive according to each specimen's native country. He then mobilized a rather different but no less "global" classifying system—a worst-nations report compiled by Amnesty International on political disappearance—and proceeded to photograph only those flowers corresponding to offending countries. The resultant group of twenty-seven photographs, shot as elegiac black-and-white close-ups, was submitted to one final displacement: the addition of a tear sheet of a brightly colored Elle magazine cover. Above a banner proclaiming LA PLANETE "ELLE," the clustered faces of five fashion models wearing sailor caps emblazoned with the names of countries stare out at the viewer with a mixture of blank beauty and orchestrated appeal—triumphant ciphers in the image industry's effacement of any real local or national specificity.
Since the mid-'90s, Williams's exhibitions have adopted a more disjunctive essayistic approach to their subjects, whereby disparate or distantly related photographs create a slippery, nearly opaque field of reference and association. Even when he employs documentary or objectivist modes, which he does often, one does not read a Williams photograph for its transparent portrayal of "things in themselves." The decisive moment always lies elsewhere, buried deep inside the backstory of a chosen subject or ricocheting among groupings of images within an exhibition. This simultaneous deferral of and insistence on meaning lend a certain irony to the experience of Williams's work. One is overloaded with facts but significance remains a riddle.