Zoe Williams, Pel, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 40 seconds. Photo: Claire Dorn.

Zoe Williams, Pel, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 40 seconds. Photo: Claire Dorn.

Zoe Williams

Ciaccia Levi

Zoe Williams, Pel, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 40 seconds. Photo: Claire Dorn.

Superficial concerns were at the heart of Zoe Williams’s exhibition “Pel,” whose title is an old French word for skin: The high-definition video, single photograph, and installation that occupied the gallery were a coordinated meditation on bodily surfaces and surface effects. Mauve satin curtains, draped to highlight their lustrous folds, covered the gallery windows; fluorescent light tubes were tinted magenta; cognac had been spilled on the carpet; and the room was frequently spritzed with perfume. A pile of cheap furs and sheepskins invited visitors to plop down in their midst to watch a video playing on a flatscreen propped in one corner. This piece, Pel (all works 2015), lingers over skin and hair, fabrics and furs. The setup is familiar enough: An unclothed white woman reclines on a bed of furs backed by vermilion fabric. The camera languorously explores her lithe figure and likewise scrutinizes the array of animal skins and fabrics that bedeck the scene, like something out of classical art history. References to a host of canonical nudes by male painters come quickly to mind. But Williams’s reconfiguration of conventions also recalls Sarah Charlesworth’s deconstruction of symbolic and photographic codes and Meret Oppenheim or Hannah Wilke’s verbal and visual puns.

Abjuring any narrative impulse, the camera brings out intensities of color and texture, stoking both visual and tactile yearnings. Implicit in these mechanisms is the broader cultural market for stimulating and mining desire. Williams may evoke soft-core porn, but she also shoots the body as one would a luxury product promo. A series of close-ups of pubic hair, armpits, and sheepskin focus on minuscule coral branches and gemstones planted amid the tendrils. Clichéd cinematographic effects—intense lens flares, zooms to close-up—underscore the artifice of the representation. Superimpositions and cross dissolves shamelessly underscore analogies between human flesh and its sensual coverings. We never see the model’s face in its entirety, yet her naked body appears not only as a mere landscape or backdrop to the jewels, but also, at certain moments, as a living, pulsating, desiring subject, albeit one that’s ornamented and depersonalized. Such effects also prompted one to consider how the various materials might feel on her skin. In several sequences, the camera frames the model’s sex almost abstractly, with thighs pressed together, hips and crotch gently rolling, grinding at low gear—is she getting off? The commissioned musical sound track, by Jack Brennan, seems to build anticipation through a medley of spare drum tracks, but without climax.

One’s feelings about this erotic and autoerotic display were inevitably unsettled by the viewing environment Williams had set up to mirror the video. The boudoir trappings of the installation flirted with kitsch, as did the fantasy sound track. But the unease was about more than just the mash-up of high and low references, a familiar enough combination. There was a more visceral queasiness at work here. Sensual pleasures and their powers of seduction, the artist knows, are apt to spoil, and arousal is not indefinitely sustainable. The blue carpet of the gallery was scattered with pastel and gold-foiled Sobranie Cocktail cigarette butts and suggestively dashed with swirls of crème fraîche that soured over the course of the exhibition. What happens when a fetish starts to curdle? High-definition video aside, the colors and effects Williams uses aren’t exactly au courant. But though tastes are bound to change, their ideological implications aren’t so easily sloughed off. Williams hints at some of the ways that conventional positions in these economies of desire might be more transitory than they seem—and therefore profitably exploited.

Phil Taylor