10.31.14 — Learn Your Lesson
Christopher Williams describes his work since 2003 as a single ongoing project, “Eighteen Lessons on Industrial Society.” He is selling himself short.
For thirty-five years, his photographs have kept coming up with new lessons, none of them easy. His retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art through November 2, could serve as the final exam. If photography still has its strange magic, no one is more determined to cut through the mystery. Together with previous reviews of photography’s magic act, it is also the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.
Williams teaches photography at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and he is not above the basics. The latest project alone has lessons on consumer goods, like unwrapped chocolates, and the threading diagram for a paper-coating machine. It shows hands loading film and changing shutter speed, the proper grip of a light meter pointing the wrong way as a model tumbles upside-down in a blur, and vintage cameras sliced right through to reveal or destroy their workings. It specifies manufacturers, models, dates, specs, and serial numbers, in titles that are clearly not going out over Twitter. It throws in a language lesson, for the actual series title is in French. And then there are the multiple lessons within a photograph.
In perhaps the best known, a nude poses against a black background, beside a Kodak Three-Point Reflection Guide. Only her name hints at her ethnicity, otherwise obscured by makeup, towels wrapping her breast and hair, and an over-the-top smile. Meiko is surely selling something, but what? Is it Eastman Kodak’s technology (©1968), luxury towels, the unseen bathroom decor, or photography as art? Williams is not saying, just as his titles spell out everything but what you wanted to know. For the uninitiated, a reflection guide displays a gray scale and color scale to enable color corrections in proof, before someone remembers to crop it out.
Learn your lesson. Williams insists on it, even as he obscures the very possibility. Born in 1956, he studied at Cal Arts with John Baldessari, lived through Pop Art and the “Pictures generation,” moved to the country of Bertolt Brecht, and calls his retrospective “The Production Line of Happiness” after a documentary by Jean-Luc Godard. (This has been a good season for Godard, who also supplied the title “Here and Elsewhere” for art of the Arab lands at the New Museum.) His father worked in Hollywood on special effects. As with that ambiguous sales pitch, any of these could support an interpretation, if you dare.
Should you treat this work as conceptual art? Williams began with such exercises as selections from government archives, their sole criteria an arbitrary date and a view of President Kennedy from the rear. Whether the pose is presidential or an anticipation of death is up to you. Of course, this is California conceptualism, and Williams is not above a downright innocent enthusiasm. How come, he asks, models in “serious” photography never do get to laugh like Meiko? Or think of it all as appropriation, from the early archival photographs to the later product imagery—and he has a habit of hiring commercial photographers to do the job for him.
A Brechtian detachment appears in the riddles, but also the assault on capitalism and the West. A series from the 1990s, “Die Welt ist schön (The world is beautiful),” features scenes of constructed beauty, like a beach in Cuba, and constructed terror, like a beetle trained to simulate its own death. A man holding a camera could be an advertisement, except that young African men do not often get to do the selling. If a Renault flipped on its side makes you think of the 1968 Paris riots or the automobile wreckage in Godard’s Weekend, you are ready for the next lesson. Yet nothing has Godard’s epic scale and passionate astonishment. This is a Brecht for deadpan Californians.
Rather than wall labels, Williams insists on a checklist, more or less chronological (unlike the exhibition), accompanied by a map, more or less accurate. Enlarged fragments of a checklist also line the walls outside, with tiny numbers (starting with 1 for A) hovering like tools for font design. The curators, Roxana Marcoci with Matthew S. Witkovsky of the Art Institute of Chicago and Mark Godfrey of the Tate, smuggle still more walls inside from past displays—with one in bare concrete, as if for a potential future. Is the jumbled, low-hung layout taking advantage of fresh pairings to retell the photographer’s favorite stories, refocusing the exhibition as about itself, or just keeping you at an infuriating distance? Do not be surprised if the numbers fail to add up.
Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.