Review: Christopher Williams – The Production Line of Happiness at Whitechapel Gallery

The first UK retrospective of American artist Christopher Williams, one of the most influential artists working with photography and the production and display of images opens today at the Whitechapel Gallery. Part of a trio of exhibitions, it follows presentations at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

We were given the opportunity to view the retrospective with a guided tour by the artist himself. The exhibition begins before you enter the gallery as green stripes engulf the foyer and cover up previous show signage, but Williams says the show starts before that; further back in time that is, referencing the remains of what was on display before, and that his show is actually an essay using photography as it’s language. And rather than by text, we are guided through the tour by the green stripes – there being no text throughout the show, no labels, no explanatory text.

The Production Line of Happiness, Gallery 1, Installation View 2

Installation view: Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photo: Stephen White

That is because the walls themselves are part of the exhibition, Williams explains it is more an installation than photography exhibition, the images (and the way they are framed) being just a part of the experience. Even the way they are hung – uncomfortably low – is intentional, forcing you to stop and peer into each image rather than scan the images as you walk through the room. The walls are a mobile system borrowed from a German museum and have the remnants of the previous show’s signage. William’s explains that his art is part of a dialogue, rethinking Pop Art and seeing relationships between artists as important.

Image 8. Citroen car 2013

Untitled (Study in Gray)

Christopher Williams’ recent photographs look at the unexpected beauty and cultural resonance of commercial, industrial and instructional photography, and also adopts their production methods. Often working in collaboration with set designers, models and technicians, the resulting technically precise photographs recall imagery from 1960s advertising, the Cold War era, as well as the histories of art, photography and cinema. Flaws and aberrations which would usually be removed in production or postproduction, such as a model’s dirty feet or a bruise on a ripe apple, remain in the final images.

Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness opens today at the Whitechapel Gallery and runs until 21 June.