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Made by the American artist Christopher Williams, this work consists of three landscape format digital colour photographs arranged in a horizontal row, all of which feature a portrait of a young woman with bright yellow rollers and metal pins in her wet brown hair. In each of the images the woman is pictured against a black background with her bare shoulders visible and her gaze directed away from the viewer. In the first image in the row she looks down to her right; in the central image she appears slightly more in profile and again looks down to her right; and in the third image she is depicted turning to look over her right shoulder. Also perceptible in the far left edge of the right image is a long thin metallic object, which appears to be a photographic tripod. The three photographs are displayed behind glass in individual wooden frames that are painted black. Tate’s copy of this work is the first in an edition of ten.
In a manner that Williams has employed throughout his career, this work’s lengthy title includes precise information on both the content of the photographs – in this case, the manufacturing details of the 1975 hair curlers worn by the woman – and the location of the work’s production, noting that it was made in the Canadian city of Vancouver in April 2005. In 2008 the curator and critic Mark Godfrey claimed that the ‘unconventional’ titles that Williams gives to his works often emphasise ‘an object that one would not assume to be the main subject of an image, thus reversing the hierarchy that the picture might seem to offer’ (Godfrey 2008, p.117). In this case, the title of Rollerstacker draws attention to the hair curlers rather than the woman, who was a model hired by Williams.
In emphasising a consumer product such as the rollers in three images that are carefully composed, well lit and highly finished, this work seems to engage with photographic forms commonly seen in advertising. However, the slight imperfections in the model’s skin, as well as the presence of the photographic equipment that is visible in the right-hand image, mean that Rollerstacker avoids the flawlessness associated with adverts. In a 2007 interview with Godfrey, Williams explained the relationship between works such as Rollerstacker and other forms of photography:
I set up photographic situations that, for all intents and purpose, could be those used in another kind of image-making activity. I try to stay as close as possible to those models of production as I can, but I also try to find the right amount of distance for there to be difference. Every shoot involves a struggle to find that point where there is distance from the model I am approaching, and yet enough proximity so that the photograph could be mistaken for the model itself.
(Quoted in Godfrey 2007, p.67.)
Rollerstacker is part of a series Williams began in 2002 entitled For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (For Example: Eighteen Lessons on Industrial Society), which takes its name from a 1963 book by the French political theorist Raymond Aron. The series examines the role of images in the Cold War – the geopolitical struggle between east and west which emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – by means of photographs of objects and buildings that evoke the era’s politics in an indirect fashion.
Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Williams completed a Masters in Fine Arts in 1981 at the California Institute of Arts, where he was taught by the American artists John Baldessari, Michael Asher and Douglas Huebler. His practice, which includes filmmaking, sculpture and graphic design as well as photography, is characterised by its high production values and conceptual focus. A particular interest in the meaning and form of photographic apparatus can be seen in works such as Cutaway model Switar 25mm f1.4 AR. Glass, wood and brass. Douglas M. Parker Studio, Glendale, California, November 17, 2007 – November 30, 2007 2008 (Tate L02876), a photograph of a model camera lens made of wood and metal that is cut away to display its internal screws and springs. Williams has also often made architectural interventions in gallery spaces in a manner that recalls the work of Asher, and commonly hangs his photographs in unusual positions and surprising formations.
Christopher Williams: 97,5 Mhz*, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Zürich, Zürich 2007, reproduced nos.17–19.
Mark Godfrey, ‘Christopher Williams in Conversation with Mark Godfrey’, Afterall, no.16, Autumn/Winter 2007, pp.63–70.
Mark Godfrey, ‘Cameras, Corn, Christopher Williams, and the Cold War’, October, no.126, Fall 2008, pp.115–42.
Supported by Christie’s.