Born 1956, Los Angeles, California
Christopher Williams is a conceptual artist who uses books, collage, installation, and video in addition to photography itself to examine the crucial role of photography, photographic processes, and institutional archives in our interpretation of current events and historical narratives. His practice enacts a critical position in relation to image making, consumption, and cataloging, as evidenced in his precisely rendered photographs of culturally significant objects and places. Although photography is central to his practice, Williams is attentive not only to the image per se but also to all the elements and details of its production and display: the camera and film, the lighting, the printing process, the frame, the title and wall label or book caption, the installation or book design, and the components of an exhibition of the work, from a gallery wall to an announcement. The titles of Williams's works often include lengthy lists of materials and circumstances related to the making of the image, calling attention to the abundance of requirements, underscoring the subject matter on view, or highlighting the location where the photograph was made.
Bouquet, for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D'Arcangelo (1991) consists of an editioned photograph and a wall. The work can be presented in two ways: the framed and matted photograph is hung on a temporary wall constructed from studs and drywall, or the framed photograph is set on the floor, leaning against a wall. The photograph pictures a bouquet of flowers lying on a table covered with a delicate white tablecloth. Each of the flowers in the bouquet represents a country called out in another of Williams's works, Angola to Vietnam* (1989), in which he photographed twenty-five of the glass flowers housed in the Ware Collection of Glass Flower Models at the Harvard Botanical Museum, one for each of the countries listed by Amnesty International as having perpetrated political disappearances in 1985. As an addendum to the black-and-white photographs, Angola to Vietnam* includes a framed cover of a French edition of Elle magazine picturing a bevy of fashion models wearing hats embroidered with the names of eight countries. The flowers in the bouquet pictured in Bouquet represent each of these eight countries.
As a result of the conceptual mechanism outlined above, Bouquet is both an independent artwork and a continuation of an earlier work by the same artist. It also weaves a web of connections between Williams and the two artists named in the title: Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D'Arcangelo. Both were conceptual artists active in the 1970s whose commitment to the reduction of visual information was radical in its own way; like Williams's work, theirs was as political as it was aesthetic. Both artists spent time in Los Angeles—where Williams was born, raised, and educated—and both died very young: Ader was lost at sea in 1975, at age thirty-three, in the midst of enacting the second part of an intended three-part work titled In Search of the Miraculous, which involved him sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, and D'Arcangelo committed suicide in 1979, at age twenty-four. The small but powerful bodies of work left behind by these two men now influence artists internationally, but when it was made in 1991, Williams's work was an early homage to these nearly forgotten conceptualists whose lives ended too soon.
Beyond the work's title, several references and gestures in Bouquet evoke the presence and practices of Ader and D'Arcangelo. The tabletop setting and the raking light in the photograph evoke sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings. As a Dutch artist, Ader made several nods to his art historical heritage in his work. For example, in his video Primary Time (1974), a bouquet of red, yellow, and blue flowers is arranged and rearranged, and his final work made reference to his country's seafaring tradition.
D'Arcangelo turned his job in construction into an artwork, commenting on the necessity of trading labor for money in a capitalist economy. In one of the few exhibitions of his brief career, his only contribution was to refurbish the walls of the exhibition space. Other artists then hung their works on the walls. While the wall in the first option for displaying Bouquet refers to these aspects of D'Arcangelo's work, the second option—propping the framed photograph against a wall—refers to another work, in which he removed a painting from the wall of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, leaning it against the wall and replacing it with a text questioning the museum context and the role of the viewer. In Angola to Vietnam*, Williams similarly challenges institutional systems, exchanging the scientific classification order with an order of his own devising that calls up political events well beyond the tight scope of botany.
Ader's homages and reinterpretations and D'Arcangelo's removals and refusals placed criticality at the core of their practices. Both artists also shared a propensity to make artworks that were not easily locatable in physical objects. As a result, the evidence of their practices takes shape in documents that are housed in collections and archives, rendered nearly invisible by the nature of their mediums and smothered by the bulk of the archives in which they rest. By naming these artists and implicating them in his work, Williams recuperates their nearly lost legacies, draws out their influence on his practice, and simultaneously traces and writes a history in which art and politics are inseparable.