Christopher Williams is an American-born conceptual artist currently based in Cologne, Chicago and Los Angeles. While his work has involved video, installation, sculpture and performance, photography has always been at the heart of his practice. It has been his career-spanning obsession to the extent that in 2008 he became professor of photography at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.Read More
Born in California, Williams studied at the California Institute of the Arts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He did so under the tutelage of the first generation of West Coast conceptual artists including John Baldessari, Michael Asher and Douglas Huebler. From the 1990s onwards, Williams expanded the scale of his projects, looking to Europe—particularly Germany—for subjects, producing bigger images and eventually directing a large studio team to produce his photographs and prints. Taking this directorial role in the production of his images makes him a conceptual artist rather than a photographer most of all. Also crucial is his use of wall labels—as part of the artwork—to present information.
Williams' works have been exhibited in many prestigious museums and galleries in Britain, Europe, the United States of America and Japan. The 2014 travelling exhibition, The Production Line of Happiness—the first major retrospective of his work from the preceding 35 years—showed the broad and disconnected range of subjects represented in his photos and prints.
Echoing Pop art, many of Williams' subjects are part of everyday life and the banal. Beneath the surface, however, these subjects have their own social or historical significance. A photograph of a Kiev 88 camera may speak to aspects of Cold War history, for example. Williams does not shy away from an intensely political subtext within his images. In Mustafa Kinte (Gambia) Shirt: Van Laack Shirt Kent 64 41061 Mönchengladbach, Germany Dirk Schaper Studio, Berlin, July 20th, 2007 (2008, gelatin silver print) several aspects with different histories are combined: the Gambian, Mustafa Kinte; the shirt, from a well-known company that once employed Marcel Broodthaers as a model; and the Plaubel Makina 67 Camera. Combined, the three critique post-colonial empowerment, showing a previously marginalised subject 'empowered' with the means of self-representation to create its own 'authentic culture'.
The subjects themselves are less the focus of Williams' works than the nature of the photographs that capture them. Almost all his work serves as a critique of the conventions of commercial photography and photojournalism. Again in a similar vein to Pop art (but for different reasons), Williams' photographs mimic and parody commercial techniques through the use of high gloss and crisp focus.
Williams looks to the histories of photography, film, architecture and design, referring back to the work of particular photographers, commercial studios and advertisers of the 1950s and 1960s. This referential structure allows him to expose and critique their systems of classification and representation.
Williams' numerous photographs of various types of camera demonstrate the way he draws connections between the photograph and its subject. They also refer to the processes of production, representation and presentation. Works such as Cutaway model Rodenstock Apo-Ronar 360/9 Copal 3... (2016, inkjet print on cotton rag paper) could easily be pictured in technical photography journals or camera adverts from the 1960s, yet they are on display as individual photographs in black frames. As images of mostly obsolete photographic paraphernalia exhibited in the context of art photography, they refer to their own process of production and remind us not to take the image at face value.
In most of his exhibitions Williams toys with conventions of display and engages with the architecture—and sometimes the institutional history—of the spaces in which he installs his work. Sometimes he hangs works so low as to require crouching or bending to view them. He also physically intervenes in the architecture of the space, building temporary walls that contrast the permanent ones.
Put simply, in Williams' images the viewers are made to think not only about the subtle implications of the subject but also the means by which it is represented and distributed. In this way they are made conscious of how their understanding of reality has been influenced by visual language.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2017
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