PRINT January 2001

Dennis Cooper

TWENTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD JOHN WILLIAMS ISN’T THE easiest artist to introduce. With his expansive, fractured, visionary talent, he’s something akin to an inventor whose energies just happen to fall within the scope of contemporary art. But whereas the quest for a better mousetrap can only lead to more insane ways to catch mice, Williams’s dizzyingly imaginative videos, sculptures, and paintings prove how far these mediums can be stretched. His daring, highly personal work has been an inspiration and touchstone for LA’s in-the-know artists and critics since 1998, when the Cal Arts graduate fist began exhibiting his work. With a March show on the docket at London’s greengrassi gallery and a New York appearance in the works, it’s a safe bet that our local excitement is about to translate into much broader acknowledgment.

If so formally promiscuous a body of work can be said to have a core medium, it’s video. Previously incorporated into Williams’s precise, daydreamlike sculptures and used as the basis for the imagery in his paintings, video has lately become a medium of choice: The artist sneaks his own cassettes into demonstration cameras in the electronics department of local Wal-Marts, then exits the stores and allows the cameras to record customers’ interactions with the products and employees. When the tapes are full, he returns to collect them. With the help of an eccentric mix of old and new, low- and high-tech video equipment, he isolates and reconfigures any moment that happens to catch his eye—slowing, accelerating, and creating hiccuplike repetitions in the footage to build laconic yet highly intricate remixed portraits in which the feckless, unsuspecting customers’ body language and facial expressions metastasize into a kind of visual instrumental while fully maintaining the videos’ status as casual, even accidental documents. Williams’s brilliance lies in the peculiar harmony he is able to create between a random bit of throwaway reality and his almost overreaching sense of its formal possibilities. In his art, what appears to be a forgettable, seconds-long image—a father coaxing his infant daughter to wave at the camera, the chance close-up of a fat woman’s cavernous elbow—is magically squared into an unrelenting graph of bizarre, farcical, yet strangely revealing physical tics. For the viewer, it’s a little like watching an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos as reimagined by Maya Deren, then edited as though it had the evidentiary value of, say, the Zapruder film.

Tangentially associated with LA’s “New Sculpture” movement, Williams’s work fits just as neatly into the tradition of genre-defying iconoclasm established by veteran LA artists like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. Williams shares his peers’ exuberant interest in exploring the expressive possibilities of three-dimensional abstraction, as well as his forebears’ acute, comedic use of Conceptual-art practice to manifest examples of psychological havoc. But, as I said, Williams’s work is notable less for the company it keeps than for the singular thrills it delivers. A pair of back-to-back showings at Marc Foxx this month and next should prove the point.

Novelist and Artforum contributing editor DENNIS COOPER is a longtime advocate of new West Coast talent. In addition to writing widely on art and popular culture, Cooper has recently cultivated a second career as a curator. His credits include “Brighten the Corners,” the 1998 Marianne Boesky Gallery show that introduced a new wave of young LA artists to New York audiences. Cooper, whose fifth novel, Period, appeared last year from Grove Press, is currently at work on Oldtimer and Newcomer, a book project in collaboration with artist Vincent Fecteau.