Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness at the Museum of Modern Art
July 27 through November 2, 2014
11 West 53rd Street (between 5th and 6th avenues)
New York, 212 708 9400
Roberta Smith begins her review of “The Production Line of Happiness,” the Christopher Williams retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, by describing one of Williams’ photographs as an “act of elegant iconoclasm.” Based on her explanation and the exhibition itself, though, Williams more accurately represents a smug iconophilia. The photograph in question features a sliced-open wide-angle lens made by the renowned German manufacturer, Carl Zeiss AG. In the image, we see the lens’ “guts,” as Smith calls them, laid out in a pristine description of the device’s inner workings. Smith continues that, “Mr. Williams produced a big color close-up of a cross section that is as formal as an official oil portrait, as alluring as a high-end fashion shot and yet as startlingly exotic as an image from National Geographic.” This statement is problematic for a couple reasons. First, I like to think that we are past the knee-jerk reaction to compare photography to painting, as though photography still doesn’t have its own history of highly skilled execution, as exemplified by Williams’ impressive craftsmanship (or at least the craftsmanship of the studios he employs). Secondly, the exoticism and fetishization that Smith notes amplify the contrived perfection Williams supposedly undermines. He does include a few details that negate the shiny rhetoric of advertisements: an ill-fitting shirt, the dirty soles of a model’s bare feet, the naturally pendulous breasts of a Netherlands Playboy Playmate of the Year. But these slight indiscretions hardly count as subversions of commercial realism.
One reason for the images’ conceptual opacity is Williams’s highly considered use of the visual language of advertising, and what he, in the wall text outside the main exhibition galleries, called a “semiotic reduction” and the “strategic use of ambivalence.” The issue I have with this approach is that, at least in Williams’s case, his ambivalence begets the audience’s ambivalence, whether it is aimed at Williams as an artist, or at the exhibition’s subject matter. In Richard Woodward’s review of the exhibition for the Wall Street Journal, he questions Williams’s claim that the work critiques late capitalist society: “Don’t they actually function here more as promotional ads for the artist himself, proof of his cleverness, such as it is?” Woodward generally writes off Williams as an uninteresting photographer trying too hard to appear smart, and whom he doesn’t feel the need to consider further. This attitude would be fine if there weren’t a dearth of attention given to Williams’s elitist approach to complex issues, for which he offers no real alternative. As such, critics’ tepid dismissal or giddy celebration creates a volatile credulity.
Something I haven’t seen mentioned in the writing on “The Production Line of Happiness,” is the relationship between white masculinity and the otherness of females and non-white males. The only portraits in the gallery are of women (often in “domestic” situations especially those involving bathing) and black men, while white, male fingers hold the camera — the power — both literally in the photographs, and figuratively in the authorship of Williams, a white male. He might say, Of course the images objectify women and “exotic” races, because that’s what advertising does — and that’s what he criticizes in his gesture to mock Capitalism. But the elitism of the exhibition’s presentation contrasted with the pedantic style of the catalog makes his commentary largely inaccessible. The irony would not be so troubling if it weren’t receiving such grand support: “The Production Line of Happiness” occupies half of the 6th floor of the MoMA, which he shares with the exhibition of Henri Matisse’s seminal cutouts, placing him temporarily at the top of the institutional art world. Has the urgency of socially and politically responsible artworks dissolved so much that the curators see no problem in celebrating Williams’s impertinent banalities? Or perhaps they were satisfied that he sits comfortably within the art-historical lineage of his predecessors such as Institutional Critique all-star Michael Asher. How he utilizes this pedigree to contribute to art or culture today is unclear. Just four floors below the Williams spectacle however, I found works that actually do something.
“Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor,” organized by Gober and the MoMA’s Anne Tempkin, has room upon room filled with evocative and politically charged works that do not let you turn away from the issues he addresses. Gober’s silk-screened wallpapers of a sleeping white man and a lynched black man stand as a prime antithesis to Williams’s startling combination of sugar coating and ostracizing. Gober plastered the walls of one of the galleries with the repeating pattern of racial injustice to remind us that our history contains the same pattern, regardless of whether or not we want to acknowledge it. Throughout the exhibit, he balances the straightforwardness of his chosen subject matter — sexuality, religion, politics, and the indelible scars they leave on American culture — with the bizarre lyricism of his objects and the materials he used to make them. Gober also embedded within the retrospective a smaller show he curated of works by artists Anni Albers, Joan Semmel, Nancy Shaver, Robert Beck, and Caty Noland. The humility of this gesture — in addition to his numerous curations of other artists’ works in the past — acts as a reminder that we are in this together, and that ambivalence is not an option.
One main difference between Gober and Williams is in the ways they communicate with their audiences. Gober invites empathy and dialogue. Williams delivers a message, which only after complex decoding reveals what he’s really getting at: an often-anticlimactic endeavor. Furthermore, Williams relieves himself of his responsibility as an artist to effectively convey his idea, saying: “Everything is interesting, and if it isn’t interesting, it’s more your inability to activate it.” If that isn’t an emperor exulting his new clothes, then I don’t know what is. Art need not be obvious or definite, but it should be generous in the way it engages its audience. Even if ambivalence is ironic, it perpetuates apathy instead of acting against it. In today’s tumultuous social and political environments, we can’t afford not to care.print