Christopher Williams: As Complex as Our Images

THE DAILY PIC: At MoMA, breasts sell a photo selling a settle – selling art.


This is a recent image by conceptual photographer Christopher Williams, on view in his definitive retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art. I’m not sure why there’s such critical resistance to his art and this show. It strikes me as being quite straightforwardly about the image culture we’re bathing in, and the artifice that structures it. If art is about telling hard truths about important matters, then Williams is on the right track. Yes, the work is complicated, because image culture is fiendishly complex, and also because, as an artist, Williams has no choice but to explore it from the inside, via the same images that he’s on about. But what great art is not equally dense and awesomely resistant to simple explication? Anyone who can give me an easy, final take on Titian or Cézanne or Picasso is either a genius or a fool.

Williams hangs his photos lower than usual, to make the simple but important point that our “normal” viewpoint on artistic images is a construct and a choice. He makes us feel that truth in our necks and our backs.

Some of his pictures are readymades or appropriations: He re-presents a 1960s ad for an airline called “TAI Afrique.” Through lousy close-cutting, its image juxtaposed a brutalist building all blurred in the background, showing us Africa’s softened “future,” with, in the foreground, a sharp-focus girl with a basket on her head, representing Africa’s past living on in its present. Williams lets us watch an entire continental history pan out on a single page.

Another set of images is selected from a collection of photos of president Kennedy. They were all shot on May 10, 1963, and only chosen by Williams because they show JFK from the back. Williams’s selection makes clear that the moments of import that most photographs show—the Grassy Knoll comes to mind—are really just samples from a much larger stream where nothing takes place. He asks us to imagine that the “significant” photos we know best may be mere outtakes from the important banality he presents at MoMA.

Today’s Daily Pic does something similar, but with still more complication. The picture is from a pseudo-commercial shoot commissioned by Williams himself, using a Playmate as model. William’s title, too long to reproduce here (it’s in full at the end of this post) tells us that she’s posed on a patio set imported to Germany from China, but that this is a moment when she’s stretching between blasts from the studio’s “Balcar” strobe lights. We’re looking, that is, at the standard girly shot used to sell furniture, or photo equipment, except distorted by what should be an off-camera stretch. The question, at MoMA, is whether she’s now also being used to sell art. One way or another, all images are built to sell. Williams just shows how the sale goes down. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund © Christopher Williams)

Full image title:  TecTake Luxus Strandkorb grau/weiß / Model no.: 400636 / Material: wood/plastic / Dimensions (height/width/depth): 154 cm × 116 cm × 77 cm / Weight: 49 kg / Manufactured by Ningbo Jin Mao Import & Export Co., Ltd, / Ningbo, Zhejiang, China for TecTake GmbH, Igersheim, Germany / Model: Zimra Geurts, Playboy Netherlands Playmate of the Year 2012 / Studio Rhein Verlag, Düsseldorf / February 1, 2013 / (Zimra stretching). 2013. Gelatin silver print. Paper: 19 7/8 × 23 3/4″ (50.5 × 60.3 cm); framed: 37 3/8 × 33 7/8″ (94.9 × 86 cm).

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