People are looking better: Christopher Williams at David Zwirner

So you are standing outside David Zwirner Gallery at the far end of West 19th Street in Manhattan. Across the way stands Frank Gehry’s misty agglomeration of salt shakers, the IAC Building. IAC is an Internet tendency that brings us The Daily Beast,, Urban Spoon,,, agnd Vimeo, among many other sites—including MyWebFace™, where html surfers can “apply dramatic effects to photos” and “create a cartoon version of themselves,” not to mention, where one can “ask and answer questions about the different chapters of their lives helping move their oral history into a protected time capsule.” Don’t be distracted, camper. You’re here to see Christopher Williams’s new show, “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 12),” up through February 12, 2011.

The show’s bilingual title hints that pedagogy lies ahead. The French part of Williams’ title is freshly collaged from the eponymous 1963 essay collection by Raymond Aron (1905-1983). Aron’s book was Englished in 1967 as 18 Lectures on Industrial Society, and the New York Public Library’s Rose Room is a convenient locale for copying it with, for example, your phone’s built-in camera. I didn’t get too far into it, but look at what I found on page three:

In general [Aron writes], I think we can say that the idea of industrial society is likely to be prominent at times when economists and politicians are inclined to emphasise the forces of production, science and technology, and to play down the importance of the economic system, whether this is defined by the property system or by the method of economic regulation (by the market or by planning). On the other hand, in periods of prosperity capitalists and liberals are more likely to praise free enterprise and competition than technology.

Aron’s suggestion that, when a state’s economy is in the toilet, politicos and corporate elites make noise about technological innovations helped me filter President Obama’s January 21 speech to General Electric workers in  Schenectady, New York:

[M]illions of people are still out there looking for work.  And even here in Schenectady, as well as GE is doing, I know everybody here knows a neighbor or friend or relative who’s still out of work.

[O]ur job now, is putting our economy into overdrive….It means educating and training our people…..[U]ltimately winning this global competition comes down to living up to the promise of places like this.  Here in Schenectady, you’re heirs to a great tradition of innovation and enterprise:  the pioneering work of Edison that made the entire modern age possible — the tungsten filaments that still light our homes…

In these pioneering efforts, we see what America is all about.  We see what has in our past allowed us to not only weather rough storms but reach brighter days.

This is America.  We still have that spirit of invention, and that sense of optimism…The future belongs to us.  And you at this plant, you are showing us the way forward.  So thank you so much, everybody.  God bless you.  And God bless the United States of America.

Are education, innovation, and optimism what America needs now? Should we race, as Obama urges us in his most recent State of the Union Address, to “win the future?” Whatever the best approach to such questions, if they are indeed questions, Americans (and I must include myself here) could listen more carefully to, better respect, and more generously comprehend those with whom they disagree.

Stanley Hoffman, in an obituary for the French sociologist and political scientist, claims Aron’s “greatest legacy…was teaching [his students and readers] how to think if one refused all ‘secular religions,’ all philosophies of history that pretend to know the purpose and the march of mankind, that begin by rejecting the world as it is and aim at total revolution.”

Christopher Williams’s show at Zwirner features thirteen medium-sized color and black-and-white photographs. Twelve photographs hang, one to a wall, in the exhibition’s three main rooms. They are mounted in black frames behind highly reflective glazing; it’s difficult not to see yourself in them. Sorted by motif, these are photographs of women, photographic equipment, store windows, and agriculture. The thirteenth picture, placed in an adjacent gallery passage, shows a Kodak-yellow mop propped upside down in a service corridor at Kunsthalle Baden-Baden.

Williams has been working on his For Example series since 2005, and some of the work in the current Zwirner show was conceived and executed during Williams’s residence in Baden-Baden last year, a time which Williams spoke of quizzically and fondly as a pastoral, perhaps sentimental journey. Baden-Baden was also hosted last major exhibition, another iteration of the “For Example” series: For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons… (Revision 11).

In most of Williams’s pictures, everything is in focus: the focus of infinity. Detail is full and rich to the degree you notice bruises and what may be a worm-nibble on a bunch of ripe red apples. These are photographs in which, if you take your time, you can get lost. You’ll find things: improbable narratives, echoes of Williams’s work, riffs from the history of photography, advertising, conceptual art, journalism, music, and that is just to begin.

Bergische Bauernscheune, Junkersholz, Leichlingen. September 29th, 2009, 2010
Bergische Bauernscheune, Junkersholz, Leichlingen. September 29th, 2009, 2010. All Christopher Williams images courtesy David Zwirner Gallery.

Silken hairs show up where a male hand-model’s wrist sticks out of a sharp white cuff. A camera flashes, but the female model is just a glowing globby outline turned around, upside-down. She is so down there, unmistakably, in an outfit the color of the crisp green apples best for making pie. Viewer, you are put in the position of some male person too obsessed with an obsolete pocket gadget effectively to attend to her, to the whirl, to the world.

Weimar Lux CDS, VEB Feingerätewerk. Weimar, Price 86,50 Mark GDR. Filmempfindlichkeitsbereich 9 bis 45 DIN und 6 bis 25000 ASA, Blendenskala 0,5 bis 45, Zeitskala 1/4000 Sekunde bis 8 Stunden, ca.1980 Modells: Ellena Borho and Cristoph Boland. November 12th, 2010, 2010

Weimar Lux CDS, VEB Feingerätewerk. Weimar, Price 86,50 Mark GDR. Filmempfindlichkeitsbereich 9 bis 45 DIN und 6 bis 25000 ASA, Blendenskala 0,5 bis 45, Zeitskala 1/4000 Sekunde bis 8 Stunden, ca.1980 Modells: Ellena Borho and Cristoph Boland. November 12th, 2010, 2010.

On your wintry trek from subway to gallery, who knows, you might have caught a reflection of your busy self in the plate glass of the Apple Store. As I mentioned, these photographs are framed in such a way that you’ll see yourself reflected in their glazing. This gets more “fun-house” when you’re reflecting on a picture of a shop window containing two cutaways of layered window glass.

Another photograph, a real turn-on, perhaps best-known from its cameo on the cover of Frieze, shows off a woman’s lower leg as her hands put on, or perhaps take off, a bright red Falke sock. This photograph renders the foot fetish fresh. But is arching that way fun for her, as it seems to feel for me? Old questions about conceptual art’s seriousness and its general worth as a project are, of course, animated by Williams’s photographs. When I spoke with Williams about these illustrated leçons, it felt natural to ask about his own early experiences with school, with pedagogies.

<br /> Untitled (Study in Red). Dirk Schaper Studio, Berlin, April 30th, 2009, 2009.

Untitled (Study in Red). Dirk Schaper Studio, Berlin, April 30th, 2009
, 2009.

We sat down at the Maritime Hotel with a tape recorder and coffee on January 10, 2011 and spoke for about an hour. Christopher Williams was born in 1956 in Los Angeles and grew up roaming around Hollywood, Playa del Ray, Studio City North Hollywood, Pasadena, and Valencia, a skater and a surfer.

“I was a surfer from the time I was twelve to the time I was seventeen,” he told me. “So I spent a lot of time in Malibu and in Southern California with the mountains and the ocean, and a lot of time in Big Sur. But basically I’m a city guy.”

As a teenager, Williams found surfing “incredibly intense and incredibly fun.” He developed sufficient skill that he attracted commercial sponsors. “I was lucky enough to get free equipment and everything. I was on a surf team, but I didn’t have to compete. I was an exhibition surfer. All I had to do was have their logo on my board and my T-shirt. And I was able to kind of get by, surfing.”

One of Williams’s earliest juried artworks tested the parameters of North Hollywood Junior High School. “We were asked in our art class to make proposals for an event on campus,” Williams says. “And I thought that a pornographic image would be the appropriate thing. So I made a pornographic image loosely based on John and Yoko and was kicked out of my art class for doing so.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this first disobedience Williams’s early interest in art and oppositional artists took root. As a pre-teen, Williams visited a beloved grandmother in Philadelphia. She took him to the Philadelphia Museum, where they together they saw pieces by Rodin, Brancusi, and Duchamp. His grandmother gave Williams, as a gift, Claes Oldenburg’s Notes in Hand.

After the pornographic poster kerfuffle, Williams was tracked into in “a detention group for misdirected, intelligent kids.” Luckily, Williams found some traction there. The teacher took the class to free jazz concerts and shows at the Pasadena Museum. Williams first encountered work by Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly, Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Cornell, Duchamp, and Warhol.

“So I ended up in a great place, where I was exposed to a pretty wide range of contemporary art. And knowing those names led me to looking at the Sunday paper and looking at the list of exhibitions. I started riding buses to visit commercial galleries to see those same artists.”

“I realized that in high school there were two activities: there was pot and surfing. I had a very low grade point average, so I knew I wasn’t going to get into a good college without getting my grades into a good place and without putting a portfolio together. And I knew I wanted to go to art school. So I dropped out of high school, and I went to a community college.”

Williams lied about his age to enroll at L.A. City College. At first, Williams didn’t enjoy his art classes there. “They didn’t have anything to do with the kind of art that I was interested in,” he says.

A change came when Williams poked his head into an art class in which he wasn’t enrolled, a course taught by John White. “He had a slide of Guernica by Picasso projected very large on the wall,” Williams remembers. “And he was hitting golf balls into the slide and then discussing wherever the golf balls would hit. And this looked good to me.”

With support from White and early Artforum editor Fred Danieli, Williams gained entry to CalArts, where he earned both his BFA and MFA, studying under a star-studded cast of characters including John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler.

Looking at Williams’ photographs, are a live conduit for puns, terms, cues, motifs, moods, historical anecdotes, threads, phrases, quips, shades, horrors, and tones. Myriad memes circulate via bioelectric synecdoche. Williams’s work activates the viewer as curious problem-solver, but without leashing your research-play-work to predictable conclusions or fabulist morals.

Bennett Simpson, in his 2006 Artforum review of Williams, has this to say about the aesthetic generosity for which Williams aims: “[T]he ceaseless rhythms of absence and plenitude that distinguish Williams’s practice belie a pleasure in contextualization that traditional accounts of Conceptual art rarely acknowledge. For all its displacements—indeed, because of its displacements—Williams’s work admits a level of affect that may not immediately be expected by viewers trying to ‘make sense’ of the many contingencies each photograph contains.” You won’t anywhere find the CliffsNotes or Sparknotes with which to hack Christopher Williams’s work. There is no one right answer, so you’ll have to come up with many of your own.

I hope I never forget Anne Collier’s major recent one-woman show. Real laughter was happening at Anton Kern gallery. People didn’t know what to do about it. What would you do faced with something like Collier’s My Goals for One Year (2007)?

<br /> Anne Collier, My Goals for One Year (2007). Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery.

Anne Collier, My Goals for One Year (2007). Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery.

Williams works pragmatically within existing structures–since 2008 he has been Chair of Photography at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, Bernd Becher’s former post–for meaningful change. During the opening night Q&A, I asked Williams to compare Vogue magazine and the white cube art gallery as spaces for encountering photographs:

They both have really different functions. I think magazines are really interesting, so it’s not a hierarchical thing I’m going to say. But it’s a statement of difference. I think this [e.g., Zwirner’s gallery] is one of a handful of places in our culture where speculative thought is still part of it. It’s not pure entertainment in here. It’s related to the entertainment industry or to the culture industry, but there is the ability to slow down and ask questions here, if you like. And earlier, when I talked about the apples, I said a picture could be like a brake. It could slow you down. And when I’m making a picture, I tell everybody I’m working with, ‘Let’s try to make a picture where even if they are not interested in the subject, they want to look more.’ So, you’re not interested in photographic technologies at all, but maybe the complexity of the camera makes you want to linger over it longer. Whereas a magazine is really about speed, in a way. Certainly, you can slow down there, too. You can tear the pages out and rearrange them and re-photograph them, and do things like that. Which is one of the ways that I functioned as a younger artist; literally tearing things out of magazines and re-photographing them and thinking about how they functioned. I think it’s the idea that you can spend ten seconds with a picture in here, or you can spend ten minutes. You know? And I think that’s a huge difference. If there’s something political about my work; and certainly with my subject matter, I’m interested in artifacts from the cold war… But if I were to locate a real politic, it would be about insisting on trying to create the conditions for a different kind of looking: different from television. I get a lot of ideas from television.

The first picture you’re likely to notice in the first exhibition room is of a high-paid hand model pressing, with a manicured index finger, a glowing green key.

Bläsing G 2000, Bläsing GmbH, Essen. Modell: Christoph Boland. November 15th, 2010

Bläsing G 2000, Bläsing GmbH, Essen. Modell: Christoph Boland. November 15th, 2010, 2010.

The show’s press release has fun quoting Canned Heat’s 1968 hippie anthem “Goin’ Up the Country”, a hit single which in a tone of woebegone idiocy attests to palpable desire for pastoral mischief. Yet not long after Woodstock, Canned Heat were making jokes at their own expense. Take a gander at the cover of their 1970 album, Future Blues:

Future Blues
Here’s one way to travel from Williams’s flash box (Bläsing G 2000, Bläsing GmbH, Essen. Modell: Christoph Boland. November 15th, 2010 to his apples (Bergische Bauernscheune, Junkersholz, Leichlingen . September 29th, 2009, 2010) to his blurred, spun woman in green obscured by the light-gadget hand (Weimar Lux CDS, VEB Feingerätewerk. Weimar, Price 86,50 Mark GDR. Filmempfindlichkeitsbereich 9 bis 45 DIN und 6 bis 25000 ASA, Blendenskala 0,5 bis 45, Zeitskala 1/4000 Sekunde bis 8 Stunden, ca. 1980. Modells: Ellena Borho and Cristoph Boland, November 12th, 2010, 2010).

I see a bright and shining Granny Smith green, the green The Beatles chose for their logo for Apple Records in 1968. Granny Smith glows in the BLITZ button. Her forces gather at the sharpest edges of leaves reflecting round Edenic apples. There she is again, flashing in the retro dress of the woman spinning out of the hand-model-man’s gravity-field.

Christopher Williams’s show is about learning processes that of course have no beginning, no end. The show is about better seeing where we are now, gathering and storing necessary supplies and techniques, sharing ideas and conversation using all means at our disposal, sharing ideas like these with each other. As the citizens of Egypt have shown us, it may sometimes be necessary to take lightning-swift, tactical, nonviolent action. Williams quietly provides us a useful place for refocusing plans for today—because the future will win itself.

Chris Hosea is an artist and teacher based in Brooklyn, New York.

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