Thank you, MoMA, for all the dizzying vinyl graphics buzzing around the entrance to the Christopher Williams show. The truncated excerpts from the exhibition catalog, printed in hypersaturated red, yellow, and black make no curatorial claims and only marginal sense, so diving straight into Williams’s alluring photo-conceptualist pictures — and the occasional hunk (literally) of exhibition wall — is remarkably easy. If you see the words “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness,” you simply go on in.
Inside, this strange work is made stranger by the absence of explanation…and not a single wall label.
Williams produces images, but he isn’t a photographer, and he rarely releases a shutter. He’s more like an editor or a film director, mining archives or hiring others to stage and take his pictures. (The museum is screening some of his films in a concurrent program.) And like a good editor, Williams can be manipulative, even dictatorial. Here, per his instruction, these 100-odd pictures hang low, as if his intended audience were in wheelchairs. The rest of us have to hunch, reminded that what lies ahead shouldn’t be taken at face value.
The tremendously appealing Falke sock, for instance. In 2009’s Untitled (Study in Red) / Dirk Schaper Studio, Berlin / April 30, 2009 — yes that’s the title, and it hints at what the artist is up to — Williams offers us a close-up of an arched foot shod in a crimson sock. To make it, he enlisted a Berlin commercial-photo operation that counts Alfa Romeo and Deutsche Bank among its clientele. The studio applied all the product-hawking trappings: a woman’s sexy foot, her hands slipping the sock on suggestively; flat lighting; a brand name running along the sock’s sole. But if you look closer, you’ll see remnants of a blister — or is it a wart? — at the base of the model’s Achilles tendon. And her nails: She could really use a manicure. There is too much real here, not enough Photoshop — an advertisement masquerade that gives itself away in its lack of manipulation.
Though the most recent photo-based work here is from 2013, the Williams aesthetic, with his color schemes that echo photo-company logos and his obsession with the products and places of postwar consumer culture, is a nostalgic one. These concerns seem quaint in our Internet epoch, and the show is reassuring in its preoccupations with images, image making, and the fantasies of consumption.
What’s not to love, after all, about a pair of photos of a wholesome young woman with Kodak-yellow towels swaddling her hair and body? One version has her smiling sweetly, the other toothily grinning (echoing image pairs are a Williams signature). Both look like shampoo ads. Or, hang on…maybe not. You can’t see her hair. Perhaps it’s body wash. But she’s not lathering up. Her smile has got to be selling something. But what? Up in the top left corner, a card pokes into the scene. It’s a Kodak three-point reflection guide, an editorial tool that ensures colors come out right, and it tips us off to the production outside the frame. But what’s she selling?
Williams’s obsessions take a forensic turn in a recent suite of photos of sliced-up cameras that look as if Damien Hirst got his hands on them. In one, Williams presents a close-up of a Zeiss lens cut in half, as if exposing its guts might unlock the ghost in the machine. Instead, he reveals a baffling metal maze.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, there’s a sub-narrative at work concerning the politics of museum display. It shows up in the occasional piece of museum wall taken from other institutions (and from MoMA), or created to mimic other exhibitions, propped here and there. The effect is briefly disorienting but ultimately forgettable. It’s the pictures, in their outlandish mimicry, that are worth a thousand Kodak moments.