Art Institute of Chicago
Through May 18

Christopher Williams might be “the most important conceptual photographer you’ve never heard of,” said Lori Waxman in the Chicago Tribune. Born in Los Angeles and now splitting his time between L.A. and Düsseldorf, Germany, the 57-year-old has been producing “politically aware, intellectually captivating, and topically expansive pictures for the past four decades.” He studied at Cal Arts under the conceptualists John Baldessari and Michael Asher but adopted a far more polished visual style than his mentors’. His photographs “reward close looking,” and not just by pleasing the eye. A picture that looks as if it could appear in a camera instruction manual may end up drawing your attention to the whorls of the hand model’s fingertips. A glossy photo of a model wearing lingerie only slowly reveals some “hilariously wrong” details—clips tightening the model’s brassiere and dirt on her bare feet.

That type of slow reveal recurs again and again in Williams’s work, said Alexandra Kadlec in Blog.ExpositionChicago.com. At the surface level, we see a pristine cross-section view of a Nikon, or a dewy cluster of red apples, or a four-door Renault tipped on its side. The pictures’ surface gleam feels distancing until you push past it and “an incredible attention to detail is revealed,” rendering each photograph “strangely beautiful.” But Williams also works outside the frame of each image to disrupt presumptions. He arranges the photographs so that we’re aware of the gallery walls and how spatial relationships change the images’ effects. He also gives the photos long titles that list virtually every detail about how the picture was produced. Those moves complicate our initial reading of each image. “What we are left with is an unanswered question,” not a simple visual memory.

Consider the photo series featuring the model Meiko, said Stephanie Cristello in ArtSlant. She appears in two similar images, her hair and torso wrapped in bright yellow towels. But the two photographs are hung so that you can’t compare them side by side, leaving you unsettled by your inability, while looking at either one, to remember her striking expression in the other. Was she also laughing in the first photo, or “perhaps more coyly smiling?” In another gallery, the only photograph on the walls hangs near the exit. A still life of flowers laid on a tablecloth, it pays tribute in its title, Bouquet for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo, to two conceptual artists who died young. But its Dutch-master-style depiction of a funereal symbol is “neither haunting nor serene.” It feels like an argument: an image “defeated by familiarity” but too vividly present to ignore.