What do art and comedy have in common? To some degree, both rely on collision to produce meaning: bad taste butting good; naughtiness understood as the path to greatness. For multimedia artist John Williams, humor and subversion have been the long threads connecting an otherwise eclectic body of work. Raised in Ohio and schooled at CalArts, the 42-year-old L.A. denizen has made performances, installations, sound pieces, abstract paintings, and sculptures that hang together as a funny cosmos big-banged from, and orbiting around, his offbeat brilliance. His latest works — on view at Brennan & Griffin in a show titled “Overheads” — are reliefs, in all senses of the word, bringing some much-needed lightness to summer in New York City.
I first saw Williams perform in 2000 — not in an art gallery, but at an open-mic night at the Comedy Store on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The dimly lit room was half full of comedy hounds, plus a few arty types eye-rolling about the two-drink minimum — and unsure as to why the then twentysomething Williams had brought us here. We all dutifully endured the leaden yuk-yuks of a few aspiring comics until the emcee finally introduced Williams. The artist jumped onto the stage, quickly sandwiched a small television between two green plastic balls, pressed play on the TV’s built-in VHS player, and knelt down in front of the set, holding a microphone up to the speaker. It was hard to see and hear what played then on video — something about one man telling another how his wife bought an “egg camera” — but it all ended when the emcee growled “wrap it up” at Williams, who then swiftly took down his “sculpture” and exited.
But that wasn’t the end of his show. “Can somebody tell me what the fuck just happened?” the emcee guffawed. He was clearly agitated, confused, and — as is the way of comedy — trying to make a joke out of it. “If you call talent doing this,” he said, imitating Williams’s kneeling posture, “then I’m on the wrong planet!” As the emcee’s efforts kept falling flat, Williams’s kept on giving: Every comic who performed afterward began their set by insulting his, setting up one of my favorite punchlines of all time: the stand-up comic as unwitting art critic.
Wrong planet, or is the artist just putting it to right use? That might sum up Williams’s credo of how subtle subversive gestures can cause ripple effects in the way we perceive ourselves and our place in space. For his “Record Projections,” a series of installation-performances that ran from 2008 to 2015, Williams created small sculptures out of found materials that he fitted to the tops of vinyl records, visual mash-ups of toy dinosaurs, wires, bottle caps, plastic netting, googly eyes, iridescent ribbons. He then spun them on turntables lit to throw whirling, multicolored shapes and shadows against the gallery’s bare white walls — a softer psychedelia that roused the mind via the eye. His “Overheads” spring from a similar spirit — from a space we might call “Plato’s playroom,” in which shadow and light and material and form reveal their entwined natures. The source of each of the five works, their life/light force, is an overhead projector. From there, Williams stages objects — on the projector, and on the wall in front of it — to produce sleight-of-eye sculptures that perform “appearing acts”: the artwork constructed somewhere between here and there, between the arenas of wall (the realm of painting) and floor (the realm of sculpture), between its material and projected presences.
Lit from below, bent plastic straws in grape, berry, and lime colors become glowing, loose-handed lines on the wall of Peppermint Lasso (all works 2017). (A running gag: how projection always plays with scale, bloating the “real world” with shadows and silhouettes looming invariably larger than the things that create them.) A glimmering chrome muffler hangs entangled with a piece of white foamcore, giving the light and lines other surfaces and depths on which to dance. For Paper Hide, Williams markered actual line drawings in black on peach-colored gels and splashed them up on the wall over an unfurling roll of plastic fencing and a draped piece of paper cut and casually painted with zebra stripes. It’s a fun pun, paper hide, as in: paper concealed beneath its surface decoration, appearing incognito as an animal skin.
It could be tempting to understand Williams’s “Overheads” as merely whimsical, or to see in their sunniness a kind of simplicity. (Although well-known and admired in his hometown, Williams has seen his reputation simmer more slowly here. Chalk it up to New York provincialism.) But the brainy shimmer of his work — and the work of certain other artists who hail from Los Angeles — is the deception in such LAXness, a looseness that’s in fact a kind of special effect won by total precision. Think of the highly composed chaos of Mike Kelley’s Day Is Done, or the death-wish “like, whatever” prose of Dennis Cooper’s George Miles cycle: In earthquake country, where the very ground beneath your feet is unreliable, causing tremors in the knowable surface of things is the only honest way to vertigo.
Take Williams’s New Haircut, a goofy, one-eyed smiling face. Hair and mouth are composed of unidentified car parts; his nose, a shadow made by a straw; his eye, a convex mirror framed by the silhouette of a stretched Slinky. Stand in front of him, and you’ll see yourself in his mirror eye, your body perfectly reduced to his pupil. (Perhaps another pun?) He’s no emoji, no universal communiqué. He’s you, at least in part, reflected here and now in the art at which you’re looking — and in all the world’s weirdo junk onto which we can always and forever project something of value.