This retrospective of LA-born artist-photographer Christopher Williams has been travelling in the past year from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and has just landed at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.
Williams is a photographer who doesn’t take his photographs himself, rather he stages them and someone else presses the shutter. His works are hyper realistic, colour saturated and often ape advertising images or commercial photography, with small details exposing the fakery and falseness of the medium.
The photographs here are hung low on the wall and there are only 50 of them – a small number for a retrospective – widely and irregularly spaced around the huge rooms. The exhibition space has an intentionally unprepared and unfinished look – nail holes in the wall from the hangs of earlier exhibitions and, disconcertingly, the captions from the Whitechapel’s immediately preceding exhibition The Adventures of the Black Square dotted around in unexpected places.
There are no captions next to Williams’ photographs, no titles/dates, no essays on the gallery’s walls, no introductory text as you go in. Nothing at all to help you. I’m not always a fan of this kind of unguided exhibition – sometimes it can work but mostly it doesn’t – I think the works have to be standalone great or together create a cohesive readable whole, if a gallery or artist plan on making the viewers do all the spadework.
Are the works alone enough to do that in this case? I think you are going to have to be already very familiar with Christopher Williams work and/or read up on him beforehand. If you just walk in off the street with no/little idea who Christopher Williams is, you are going to struggle somewhat.
Three differently coloured catalogues have been printed up for this touring exhibition – red, yellow and green. Each slightly different in content, the Whitechapel’s is green. Ah yes, that brings us to the green theme. Broad floor to ceiling green stripes have been painted on the walls of the gallery and the Whitechapel’s foyer for this show. What’s that about? There is no explanation to hand (natch) But I notice that one of the photographs is of a green and white striped tile. Is that what the green paint job refers to? Or is it what I later read, that the Chicago show was themed in yellow, the MOMA show in red and this one at the Whitechapel in green – with the suggestion that the colours relate to the colours of the boxes of three famous film brands, yellow for Kodak/ red for Agfa/ green for Fuji.
I don’t know whether the green stripes reference film boxes, the photograph of the tile or the catalogue or all three or even none of them at all. In the end I think the conceptual staging has overshadowed the photographs and that’s a shame, I might have liked to have learned more about Christopher Williams and his work but I would need just a little bit of help to do so.
77-82 Whitechapel High St