Los Angeles

John Williams


For just over a decade, John Williams has been cleverly employing sculpture as a useful conduit for time-based action. In 1998, the Los Angeles–based artist produced the first objects of his ongoing “Record Projection” series, a group of small, flashy assemblages crafted from colorful, mass-produced plastic forms—drinking straws, dish scrubbers, stick-on bows, hair rollers, and poker visors, for example—attached to vinyl records that, when set atop spinning turntables, become animated instruments in Williams’s expanded cinema–like performances. During these events, Williams randomly selects and interchanges these top-heavy albums to play on turntables, wired to amps and speakers, scattered around the gallery floor. As they twirl, the records produce crackles and warped, droning tones. Working on the floor around each turntable, Williams repeatedly positions slide and film projectors that suffuse each assemblage in broad patches of raw, white light. When illuminated, the sculptures cast vividly colored shadows like homemade dream machines à la Brion Gysin that flicker in time to the rhythmic, atonal sounds. For his recent exhibition at Sister gallery, Williams presented “Record Projection” (all works 2009), a new group of fifteen assemblages built from unexpected odds and ends, including a plastic magazine rack, a play sword, pipe cleaners, a baby-doll hat, Christmas-tree ornaments, blue tinsel, and packaged-food labels—collectively brought to life in three performances during the run of the show. These formally balanced but materially unruly, toylike objects complemented four large, untitled sculptures and an extensive group of related drawings.

In a claustrophobic installation that lent itself to the materialist busyness of Williams’s overall aesthetic, this new body of work demonstrated the artist’s constant attention to and sustained consideration of form. Just as the new “Record Projection” works continue a ten-year undertaking, the homogeneous forms of Williams’s four seven-foot-tall sculptures are also the product of a long-standing formal “investigation”; they were modeled after a hap- hazard arrangement of cast-off materials that, for the past decade, had been sitting in the artist’s studio. Bolted to the gallery’s cement floor, each form is composed of an upright sheet of jagged aluminum, affixed with a urethane penguin around which a transparent, plastic mask, tarted up with cosmetics, is strapped. On each metal plane, Williams rendered crude illustrations of bent legs and hands in white paint; when combined with the cast penguin heads, these forms produce an economized figuration: Bodies are signified through found junk and a minimal series of lines. Thirty-two drawings mounted on two adjacent walls of the gallery depict the sculptures’ rudimentary, clownlike figures, with their various permutations of leg, hand, and head positions. The gestures of these sharp, angular bodies suggest an inscrutable semaphore.

As is typical of Williams’s work, which ranges from sculpture, painting, and photography to architectural intervention, video, and performance, the show itself was a surprising and simple pleasure—after all, we were looking at small piles of junk and whirling forms—that displayed both the modesty and complexity of the artist’s techniques. The work was at once straightforward and oblique, shabby and fussy, delightfully disjointed and yet still motivated by a persuasive (although cryptic) logic. And whereas Williams’s most recent “Record Projection” works seem cleaner and more controlled than earlier iterations—the slackness of his initial tinkering has been replaced by a sophisticated understanding of materials—the objects are still marked by an electric spontaneity. And it is this impulsiveness (and his compulsiveness) as a “maker” that has always made his practice so compelling. As demonstrated in this exhibition, Williams has an effortless and fluid approach to the way he uses media: spinning “film” out of sculpture; making sculpture that acts as either a pedestal or a projection surface; inventing language from drawing; employing readymades as stand-ins for figurative painting; and envisioning performance as an ongoing action. Once again, he has successfully rethought the possibilities for his own expressions.

Catherine Taft