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On the uppermost floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is a somewhat unconventional retrospective of the difficult-to-categorize Christopher Williams. Presenting photographs from his 35-year career, “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness” evidences what curator Roxana Marcoci called his “truly cross-disciplinary” work. The exhibition engages with photographic conventions and commercialism, sometimes gnawing at your expectations, but always with cleverness and spirit.
The show is arranged in what Williams referred to as an “awkward gallery” because you must exit the way you entered. Said entrance/exit features checklists and writings, which have been blown up onto bright red walls. These “supergraphics” relate to the walls from previous exhibitions that are installed throughout the exhibit, creating a connection between past, present, and future. The actual gallery space, however, does not include any wall texts, so spectators must rely on a confusing, non-sequential (but very appropriate) program for direction.
In reference to the atypical space, Williams said, “My titles are too long or they’re too short, my mattes are too big, the pictures are a bit low, everything is as it should be, but just a little bit akimbo.” In doing so, he invites viewers to ask themselves why indeed the pictures hang so low because “then you’re asking a philosophical question and you’re confronting the idea that they should be higher and then the question is why should they be higher?”
The exhibition features works such as Angola to Vietnam (1987-89), and Dix-huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle. Angola to Vietnam, one of his major projects from the 80’s, is a series of 27 photographs that combine the scientific and the political. His more recent series, Dix-huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle, considers image culture as it has been affected by the Cold War as well as its role in exhibitionist society. Throughout, Williams colorfully engages with artistic traditions and consumer culture, depicting anything from a Cuban beach or a bunch of apples to a woman dressed in an empty smile and a Kodak-colored towel.
And more often than not, any models featured will be smiling. Williams considers smiling his area of work, commenting, “over the years, I’ve tried to reposition the smile and the laugh in different ways” due to the lack of smiles in the worlds of conceptual art and photography.
However, Williams stated that he does not consider himself as belonging to either of those worlds. “I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘conceptual artist’ but I’m equally uncomfortable with the idea that I’m a photographer,” he said. He observed that he is a “picture editor and a graphic designer” as much as anything else.
“Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness” will be on view at the MoMA from July 27 through November 2, 2014.