The images in Christopher Williams’s retrospective “The Production Line of Happiness” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art are not accompanied by titles or descriptions of any kind, nor are they arranged in any perceivable order. His photographs of run-of-the-mill consumer products, models at awkward angles, and photographic equipment spliced in half to reveal their inner workings are beautiful in their execution, yet no individual piece or series can be singled out as spectacular. To the untrained eye, Williams’s photographs are mundane. They present pop cultural imagery that we have passively come to accept as part of our lives. What, then, is the point of these photographs that we neither relate to directly nor connect with emotionally?
It quickly becomes obvious that the viewer is somehow being kept out of the loop. There is something behind these indifferent photographs that we do not and cannot understand without further explanation. Even the exhibition catalog provides minimal insight into the works, instead opting for only a Yellow Pages-like listing of Williams’s signature long and detailed titles of his photographs and films.
The only element of the exhibition that cues the viewer in to a deeper meaning is a half-cut-off piece of text referencing author and playwright Bertolt Brecht printed in a corner of the gallery space. If there is one thing to know about Christopher Williams as an artist, it is that everything about his work, including its curatorial organization, is intentional. He makes use of visual conventions from advertising, fashion, and still life to create his own unique oeuvre that pushes the boundaries of even the most well-established genres. His work, as benign as the images may appear, comments on the conventional nature of the medium of photography; each photograph is a critique of photography itself. Like Brecht,Williams makes his viewer aware of his chosen medium, creating a separation between the reality of the work and our own experiential reality. It is of little significance for either man to relate to how we live our lives; this is beside the point. Rather, the goal is to make the viewer aware of the reality we have come to know. It could be argued that Williams’s photographs are cliché, and worthy of little more than a brief pass.
Herein lies his intention. The imagery itself, be it a stack of candy bars or a dishwasher filled with red dishes, is somewhat arbitrary from the viewer’s point of view. It is the thought behind the image and its ultimate execution that matters. It is function over form. Trained among John Baldessari, Michael Asher, and other members of the first wave of West Coast Conceptual artists during the 1970s at the CalArts, he and his contemporaries sought to critique both visual and institutional forms.The result transcends the visual and enters the realm of philosophy. Photography is only a means to an end.
Published on museemagazine.com