My mind was blank as I exited “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur la Société Industrielle (Revision 19),” the newest solo exhibition by Christopher Williams at the David Zwirner gallery in New York. Embarrassed to have this be the best my graduate MFA student brain could muster, I swiftly walk back into the space to find what trigger had brought me to this point. Clarity became a necessity I could not leave without.
Large walls as white as a doctor’s office loom over me in this small, single room exhibition space. The walls are unfinished, consisting of cuts that imply where a walkthrough was to be made, half erased pencil mark measurements, and exposed sidings. For a moment, I think the installation wasn’t finished and am confused why they would allow people to see an unfinished show.
But as I zigzag through the space, I catch on that the walls divide the space into thirds, creating smaller clusters of photographs that change as I move throughout the space. I no longer see these gaps within the divider walls as mistakes, but rather portals to view photographs once hidden. With a slight change of my stance or perspective, a cluster of three photographs becomes five and a new dialogue forms. Thrilled by my observation, I quickly move through the space and attempt to see everything that is to be seen.
I notice quickly though, no new sense of clarity or understanding has come from this new viewing technique. Frustration forms from the confusion, so I turn to look at the photographs with a more critical eye. The photographs, all framed and similar in dimension, are hung at waist-level to the viewer. A clean and commercial aesthetic is prominent throughout the images, but a relationship is hard to form between a series of almost identical cars, a portrait of a prized chicken, and bi-sections of cameras. I’m still at a lost as to what is being shown, and no longer feel as confident about what I perceived to be the correct way to view the exhibition. I always thought there was a start and finish when it came to these types of things.
A small roar fills my head - it transits from faint and tolerable to a full-blown symphony within minutes. I cannot answer simple questions. What is Williams attempting to show us? Is there a relationship between the images? Is there even a “correct” way to view this exhibition? This bothers me to no end. Begrudgingly, I must leave the gallery, filled with more doubt and confusion than when I had started.
As a last ditch effort for clarification, I snag a copy of the only literature offered by the gallery as to what I had just experienced: a postcard containing the words “Christopher Williams” and “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur la Société Industrielle (Revision 19).” Disappointment is an understatement of how I feel upon realizing no explanations would be coming. I have been deprived of my saving grace: clarity.
Dwelling on the possibilities of what I had just experienced as I walk to another gallery with my fellow cohort, I realize that I positively, without a doubt, disliked “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur la Société Industrielle (Revision 19).” Yet, I couldn’t help but concede that a single room had forced me to engage with what I was directly seeing. I believe that to be a trait in good art, yet I am still certain of the dislike I feel towards the show. I realize I have been limited in my understanding of art. Art isn’t always one thing or another, and usually is multiple things at once. While I’m not certain that I know what Williams truly is talking about within the show, I feel the bigger picture is to interact and perceive, rather than to stand and know.
Published January 14, 2015