New York

John Williams, Untitled, 2017, overhead projector, soccer goal, spray paint, powder-coated steel mesh, PVC board, film gels, metal chain, plastic chain, hooks, speaker mesh. Installation view.

John Williams, Untitled, 2017, overhead projector, soccer goal, spray paint, powder-coated steel mesh, PVC board, film gels, metal chain, plastic chain, hooks, speaker mesh. Installation view.

John Williams

John Williams, Untitled, 2017, overhead projector, soccer goal, spray paint, powder-coated steel mesh, PVC board, film gels, metal chain, plastic chain, hooks, speaker mesh. Installation view.

The overhead projector—that forgotten castaway of middle-school math class—assumes center stage in Los Angeles–based artist John Williams’s most recent works. With its bulky frame, clamorous cooling fan, and characteristic distortion of the square of its backlit surface into a top-heavy trapezoid that appears on the wall, the overhead holds little of the nostalgic allure of the 16-mm projector, or even the slide carousel. It’s a little too utilitarian, a little too pedagogic to sustain the sexy sheen of the retro. In this exhibition of five new works, Williams, to his credit, didn’t try to turn the apparatus into a tool of seduction. His sculptures (all 2017) are easygoing combinations of ordinary items arranged on the projector and the wall, as off-kilter as the machine itself, and more attuned to improvisation and experimentation than resolution. In each piece, a slightly askew “canvas” of light provided a backdrop for an array of suspended detritus, from car parts to plastic fencing and a tomato cage, as well as the projected forms of colored plastic straws, wire mesh, and film gels. Questions of scale assumed prominence, if not necessarily consequence. In Peppermint Lasso, three colored straws, bent and twisted into undulating lines, dwarf the actual chrome muffler they traverse, even as they mirror its shape; the play on foreground and background is heightened by the addition of a sinuous foamcore appendage that wraps under and above the muffler. In Paper Hide, a tangle of mesh fencing competes with a few scribbled lines on a translucent orange sheet. The result can come across as a one-liner, as does the goofy New Haircut, in which parts of a car bumper are hung so that one bowed shape demarcates the top of a head, while the bottom piece forms a smile or maybe a chin; a Slinky and a looped plastic straw on the projector’s surface are transmuted into a nose and eye. But more often, the artist’s ludic interventions are a welcome exercise in form. 

Williams’s earlier performances, in particular the “Record Projection” series he began in 2008 and has exhibited in a variety of iterations since, have been aptly described by Bruce Hainley as “hip versions of the magic lantern.” The artist placed assemblages of odds and ends, from cellophane bows and plastic netting to pipe cleaners and paper scraps, on rotating turntables illuminated by film projectors. The play of shapes and shadows flickering across the walls recalls the formal innovations of László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage, 1930. Williams’s new projections seem equally informed by the Bauhaus master’s investigations of form and light, albeit from slightly later. Moholy-Nagy’s light and space modulators of 1939–46 were hanging sculptures made of intersecting and perforated Plexiglas and metal manipulated to filter light. He frequently photographed them in motion, but even when still the contraptions cast an array of shadows and distortions on the wall behind. This direct staging of light, and the resulting interaction of object and illumination, is invoked most clearly in Williams’s Untitled, in which a soccer goal juts off the wall, its net hanging downward, draped with metal and plastic chains. The square mesh of the netting is interrupted by the circular mesh of a speaker grill, but it is also doubled by its own shadow. The chains, too, create a series of overlapping silhouettes of light and dark, one that is further enhanced by the artist having spray-painted a central section yellow to match the lemon-colored swatch of a gel. With Untitled, Williams has given new relevance to Moholy-Nagy’s recombinatory logic while managing to infuse it with a playful ease.

Rachel Churner