Review: Christopher Williams – The Production Line of Happiness

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Christopher Williams (American, born 1956). Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide / © 1968, Eastman Kodak Company, 1968/(Meiko laughing)/Vancouver, B.C./April 6, 2005. 2005. Chromogenic color print, paper: 20 x 24″ (50.8 x 61 cm); framed: 34 x 37 3/4″ (86.4 x 95.9 cm). Glenstone. Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner, New York/London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne. © Christopher Williams. Photo courtesy of MoMA.

by Rachel Heidenry

Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness, on view at MoMA through November 2, 2014, is a must-see. The first retrospective of the artist, the show was organized by curator Roxana Marcoci and includes works spanning Williams’ 35-year career. Interested in the histories of photography, film, architecture and design, Williams approaches these fields with a brilliant conceptual eye. While referencing the themes and motifs inherent in each of these respective fields, the artist moves beyond tropes and parameters by directly highlighting their cliches. The more one looks, the more one realizes that the show is all about authenticity.

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Christopher Williams (American, b. 1956). Bergische Bauernscheune, Junkersholz/Leichlingen, September 29, 2009. 2010. Pigmented inkjet print, paper: 20 x 24″ (50.8 x 61 cm); framed: 32 7/8 x 37 1/16″ (83.5 x 94.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund. Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner, New York/London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne © Christopher Williams. Photo courtesy of MoMA.

Consequently, critique is inherent. Staying loyal to the viewpoint of the image, but manipulating the way it is seen – both in relation to display and to composition – the images are seen in an entirely new light. Critiques of capitalism, advertising and entertainment explode from the works, as everything from beauty and celebrity to family values and food is explored with close attention. Indeed, Williams is interested in the myriad ways that images have and continue to be co-opted as agents of spectacle and amusement.

What makes the works succeed is the artists’ remarkable understanding of subtlety. Williams comprehends the importance of display and reception that can morph a seemingly everyday or mundane image into a fascinating new look at contemporary life. He makes us search for authenticity, as we question what authenticity even means – or, most important, looks like.

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Christopher Williams (American, b. 1956). Cutaway model Nikon EM. Shutter:/Electronically governed Seiko metal blade shutter vertical travel with speeds from 1/1000 to 1 second with a manual speed of 1/90th./Meter: Center-weighted Silicon Photo Diode, ASA 25-1600/EV2-18 (with ASA film and 1.8 lens)/Aperture Priority automatic exposure/Lens Mount: Nikon F mount, AI coupling (and later) only/Flash: Synchronization at 1/90 via hot shoe/Flash automation with Nikon SB-E or SB-10 flash units/Focusing: K type focusing screen, not user interchangeable, with 3mm diagonal split image rangefinder/Batteries: Two PX-76 or equivalent/Dimensions: 5.3 × 3.38 × 2.13 in. (135 × 86 × 54 mm), 16.2 oz (460g)/Photography by the Douglas M. Parker Studio, Glendale, California/September 9, 2007– September 13, 2007. 2008. Chromogenic color print, paper: 20 x 24″ (50 .8 x 61 cm), framed: 29 15/16 x 37 3/16″ (76 x 94.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Helen Kornblum in honor of Roxana Marcoci and Committee on Photography Fund. © 2013 Christopher Williams. Photo courtesy of MoMA.

A student in the 1970s at the legendary California Institute of the Arts, Williams is influenced from his renowned teachers – John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler, Michael Asher, among others. However, while his work is clearly born out of these traditions, Williams is in no ways derivative. He expands away from these predecessors through an innate understanding of popular culture and critical theory.

A highlight of the show is a museum display wall placed on a moveable pedestal in the center of the gallery. The work encompasses Williams’ intention as an artist – putting in our face what is frequently seen, but never entirely considered – the artificial disguised as the real. As an artist, Christopher Williams forces us to look deeper, to be critical and to really think about the images placed before our eyes. 

Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness is on view at MoMA through November 2, 2014. After its presentation at MoMA, the exhibition travels to Whitechapel Gallery, London, where it will be organized by Mark Godfrey, Curator of International Art, Tate Modern. At The Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition was organized by Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography, AIC.

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