Christopher Williams

Since the early ’80s, the Los Angeles-based artist Christopher Williams has adapted images from photographic archives, depicted objects in specialized collections, or taken pictures that involve no institutional sources. Although his procedures vary, Williams’ work always addresses a world of references, entailing active spectatorship as well as cognitive processes (it is telling that Williams studied not only with Michael Asher and John Baldessari, but also with Douglas Huebler at Cal Arts). His recent solo show featured five pieces from his ongoing series “For Example: Die Welt ist Schön” (For example: the world is beautiful, 1993–). Each of these works addresses a particular subject, ranging from human and animal life to architecture and design.

Tokio, April 4, 1993, 1993, is the title given to four photographs of a young Japanese woman who was randomly approached by a beauty magazine, offered a haircut and makeover, and then posed to document the results. Williams went to the location, carrying the same equipment as the magazine’s photographer. The timing and angles of Williams’ head shots, however, differ just enough from those in the images taken for the magazine to engender an alternate viewpoint. Not only is the model’s gaze askew, but Williams’ sequence reflects an oblique stance, negotiating another means of access to a highly codified event.

In a work from 1996 Williams presents the Olivetti “Valentine” typewriter (designed by Sottsass and King in 1969) as a sensual object as well as something unfathomable by the senses alone. Erasing contingent connotations, the four different shots taken by the artist of the red machine against a white background conflate seeing and knowing. They cast the “Valentine” as an icon of a bygone culture and its codes of taste, as well as a form, color, tangible object, handy working tool, and medium of human expression.

But most intriguing, perhaps, are the two pictures taken in Brasilia on January 31, 1997, each of which depicts one side of a building surrounded by similar structures. These blocks form a development called a “Super Quadra,” conceived in 1960 by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer as a form of domestic architecture meant to transform middle-class family life and to foster integration among residents. The plan required that every “Super Quadra” be identical. While each block shared few facilities with its adjacent unit, the customary divisions between social, service, and private areas were abolished. The building in the photograph, however, differs from its neighbors in terms of height. It was, in fact, among those assigned to the Bank of Brazil for its employees and, as Williams discovered, the differences went beyond the building’s exterior, because the apartments maintained servants’ quarters.

This photograph is suggestive because it contains just enough external information for one to grasp its implications. The buildings’ heterogeneous heights provide visual evidence of the power conflicts that undermined the Brasilia project and its utopian vision of solidarity between classes. This work, and much of Williams’ practice, stands between the truth of the fact and the truth of the art. Proposing a way of seeing in which sight turns into insight and vice versa, the images reestablish a correlation between the artwork and the world, and between artistic and factual knowledge.

Gabriele Guercio