New York

Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams’ photographs possess a treacherous wit. Virtually all are parts of different, seemingly open-ended series, each image an ironic revision of a previous one, though ultimately it is unclear what comes before and what after. There are larger ironies: For example, die Welt ist schön (Revision 1), 1993, alludes to the title of Albert Renger-Patzsch’s famous 1928 book. (Renger-Patzsch wanted to call it simply Things, but his publisher decided otherwise, ruining the photographer’s reputation among the leftist cognoscenti, who knew the world is not beautiful.) Williams’ photographs depict a sort of invented funny-ugly-absurd thing (why did he have to invent one, when there are so many around?) from a variety of angles, each of which seems to compete with the other for a monopoly on funny-ugly-absurdity.

On a more conceptual level, this series demonstrates how no single point of view is comprehensive or absolutely convincing, and that all are peculiarly funny-absurd (if not ugly). The given may still be recognized as such, but it is never self-identical. Thus, Williams photographs Japanese landscapes and female heads from different points of view—the heads front and back and from various sides, the landscapes from far and near and here and there—suggesting the irreducible relativity and hence funny absurdity of sight. Are the Japanese privileged to be his subjects because Williams wants to exploit the fact that they are currently sehenswürdig (worth seeing), yet on some level remain elusive, unreadable to Westerners? Or is it inscrutability itself that is fashionable? It must be, since Williams maintains a tongue-in-cheek fascination with it. For him, the inscrutable seems to inhabit facticity, even though facticity wants to debunk it.

The figurative color works interest me most. Williams manages to defeat the “romanticism”—the libido—latent in color, even though his backgrounds “touch upon” it. Thus, Yukiko Saito is presented in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Her expression remains the same—inexpressive, even dull—from every side. Behind her, however, the background has become a blurry, abstract field painting with a vertical red band that remains constant however much it shifts its position from photograph to photograph. Here, Williams seems to be trying to straddle a complex perceptual border, even though he doesn’t know exactly where it is located. The same juxtaposition of overliteral figure and blurry abstract background appears in the photographs of Tokuyo Yamada. While there is something funny-absurd in the contradiction, Williams hasn’t completely fathomed it—just stated it as a simple juxtaposition, and perhaps this is why ultimately it seems conceptually unresolved.

Williams appears to mock the concept—or is it appearance?—of “German” and “Japanese.” Perhaps all he wants to do is problematize—bracket—them as well as photography. This may be all that art can do with any subject matter these days, for, as Williams’ photographs show, art has become stylishly problematic or quasi-philosophically witty.

Donald Kuspit