The Museum of Modern Art | July 27 – November 2, 2014
Stepping through the grand red doorway of The Production Line of Happiness, a single photograph of a finger touching a glowing green button hangs on the wall. Sprite yet aloof, the photograph looks to be the kind you might find filling a discount drugstore frame. Just what, one wonders, will this green button trigger? Are we to feel some sort of Cold War-era, hot button angst? With each detail unnervingly exact, the photograph refuses any dusting of reality; the device is too clean, the finger too manicured, the gesture too frozen.
This scripted precision is perhaps the most salient characteristic of Christopher Williams’s work, and each photograph in The Production Line of Happiness stands as a tightly-packed query into the sights and colors of our contemporary visual culture. Find a loose detail, he seems to prod, and layers of densely-coded meaning will begin to unravel. Simultaneously, Williams exposes and perfects the complex systems of coding, framing, and classification that our corporations and institutions use to stabilize an image.
Let it be known, however, that unless one is familiar with the artist’s work, little of this is evident. The exhibition carries none of the “retrospective” markers: no wall text, no chronology, no low-hanging didacticism. The works are hung awkwardly beneath eye-level—if tall, one must hunch to see any details—and some walls stand without any pictures at all. Many museum-goers wander through the labyrinthine walls visibly confused. Titles of the works are available in a separate printed “program” and may help the attentive viewer gain traction; the program obsessively documents the conditions of each photograph, down to the weight of the material pictured or the model’s name. Still, the exhibition remains a bewildering challenge.
Williams’s conceptualist approach can be traced back to his days as a CalArts student in the late 1970s. Under John Baldessari and Michael Asher (the catalogue is dedicated to the latter), Williams created his art through strict, self-imposed parameters for appropriation—a methodology he follows still. For his thesis show in 1981, he combed the John F. Kennedy archives for instances on May 10th, 1963 when the president was pictured from behind, then presented his “rephotography” of the original negative. In the decades since, Williams has sharpened his conceptualist critique to take on structures of meaning outside the art institution—specifically the subliminal language of commercial photography—all the while maintaining a commitment to photographic practice.
Take “Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide © 1968, Eastman Kodak Company, 1968 (Meiko laughing)” (2005), an image in which the artist’s play of duplicitous allusions is succinctly compounded. A woman with a trained smile poses with vibrant yellow towels wrapped around her head and chest, as if she has just stepped from the shower. Plush and radiant, the hue is the same trademark yellow found on every box of Kodak film. The staged quality of the photograph is undeniable: the Kodak color bar, sold to photographers to achieve accuracy in printing, is clipped into the frame from the left. The image is part of an ongoing series Williams began in 2003, For Example: Dix-huit leçons sur la société industrielle (Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society), in which various salable goods, such as tires, dishwashers, soaps, and shampoos, are photographed with commercial, profit-sharing care. Removed from museum frames and printed on glossy pages, the photographs could outshine even those in the most upscale sales catalogues.
In this and each installment of the Dix-huit leçons series, the artist not only appropriates the tools and language of commercial photography, he appropriates the entire site of the image’s production. To achieve such meticulousness, Williams chose not to hold the apparatus himself, but to direct a team of professional photographers selected for their expertise. In conversation with Jörg Heiser in Frieze in 2010, Williams explained, “If I want to make a photo of apples I find an object photographer who often makes photos of apples. […] It’s a way of not only using found imagery, but also gaining control over its production.” For the “Kodak” image, he developed the work exclusively on Kodak film as a test of the product’s ability to replicate the very color it claims as its corporate identity. Seeing this image in a Sixth Avenue window we might not look twice—even if shot by the same photographer in the same studio. But here, in the museum, Williams asks that we slow down and trace the subliminal shadows.
Williams accomplishes his critique not just through the appropriation of production, but also by controlling the display. At MoMA, “Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide © 1968” is installed on stacked cement bricks: an image of excessive production value hung on an exposed, raw skeleton of a wall. At the Vienna Secession in 2005, Williams displayed the Dix-huit leçons series on temporary walls erected obtrusively in the gallery’s white cube space. He then instructed the installers to peel the tape between the wall sections while the paint was still wet, creating a grid of exposed joints intended to be hidden. Here in New York, a temporary wall brought from the Art Institute of Chicago (wherethe retrospective was previously shown) is reinstalled, the labels claiming wall ownership still stuck to the back. The wall displays only its unfinished blankness—a comment on institutional context in the most literal sense.
Photographs, though mute and still, are anything but fixed when studied, and Williams knows this well. His fetishistic attention to detail is a stealth attack; the tighter he controls each aspect of production and display, the more untenable the photograph becomes.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.