New York

Christopher Williams

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Looking at a Christopher Williams show can be a nerve-racking activity. For all the pleasure offered by Williams’s stark/lush photographs, there is in every one of his installations the threat of an intellectual aptitude test. Why else would so many of the writings on his work begin with seemingly casual questions that sound nonetheless like riddles? “What relationship is there between a French car from the ’60s, a Japanese student posing for a fashion photo in 1993, papayas (of the Carica papaya Linné sort), and a dishwasher tray filled with brightly colored plates?” asked Jean-Pierre Criqui in these pages in 2000; “What does a jellyfish have to do with a working class apartment building in Lodz?” wonders John Kelsey in a 2007 essay.

That there actually are connections between these disparate elements is a fact, but the links are rarely immediately self-evident—although, it should be said, sometimes they are only self-evident. Take Williams’s most recent exhibition, “For Example: Dix Huits Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 7).” If its title alone points out that this was just a single subsection of a larger, ongoing, and self-amending project, one starts, nevertheless, asking the usual sorts of questions: What does a cutaway model Switar camera have to do with a black guy from Gambia wearing a Van Laack shirt have to do with a vintage-type Michelin tire have to do with a blond woman in nothing but a sheer bra and panties have to do with a Vietnamese cultural center have to do with a jellyfish have to do with green-and-white Buren stripes?

Williams has been developing his practice for more than twenty years, so there are a number of established through-lines in his work (indeed, many of these are formally duplicated—for the “new” subject matter, for example, he utilizes a hanging structure borrowed from his last, in 2006). That Williams’s work embodies a critical investigation of the vicissitudes of industrial culture—its representational and classifying structures in particular—has been often discussed. Hence his attraction to obsolete (and thus easily fetishized) objects, which he photographs as specimens, completely decontextualized and fiendishly clean, should come as no surprise.

But however much Williams delivers embedded narratives or commentaries about the way people, places, and things are burdened with connective tissue (for example, we learn in Williams’s press release that Michelin tires, so dear to our fantasies of Paris in the 1960s, were nearly all composed of rubber from Vietnam), a productive anxiety remains implicit—even necessary—to experiencing the work. For while Williams’s photography has been posited as fundamentally “conceptual” in bent, it also feels strenuously heuristic. One feels one’s own inadequacies in the face of all these fragile layers of meaning, trying to produce for oneself the foundational material to make sense necessary for the work.

This mere recalcitrance does not by design recommend the work—untangling coy roadblocks of esoterica is not rewarding in itself, nor is it necessarily generous on the part of an artist to require such labor, as though this alone constituted rigor. But though it would seem to offer up a kind of arcane archive, Williams’s knowledge (and thus image) bank is nonetheless hardly just scientific or even unidirectional. Its system is at once politically redolent and highly subjective, marked as it is by desire, ambiguity, and even whim. (In this vein, just how race and gender are utilized in his work demands further attention.) And it is this second layer of meaning making, in which the viewer finally, with some effort, relinquishes his or her hopes to fully match Williams’s associations and eases into his or her own (I gave myself over to my utter fascination with the blond model’s abundant moles) that seems to me to be at the heart and soul of Williams’s ongoing “lessons”.

Johanna Burton