Los Angeles-born, Düsseldorf-based photographer Christopher Williams had his first museum exhibit at the Art Institute in 1982. Three decades later, the conceptual photographer returns to Chicago for a career-spanning retrospective.

Williams’s images may parody sexy commercial imagery for products and lifestyles, but his images are not just about surface pleasures—getting brain-deep into his art is the greatest reward.

What should you know before you go?

“Bring an open mind and open senses,” says exhibition curator Matthew Witkovsky. “Consider elements of the museum you don’t normally consider”—like the way other visitors move among the exhibit’s mazelike walls.

What’s it all about?

Some call Williams’s photographs Capitalist Realism. Randomly select anything in your visual reach and it’s probably begging for attention, which is why you can ignore it. The topic is so familiar it’s sometimes hard to see. If you like Gerhard Richter’s hyperrealist paintings, Williams might be his equivalent in photography.

Who is Meiko? And why is she laughing?

She is a model selected from a casting call (pictured). A criteria was that she appear to be educated. “Ordinary people can respond to authority by laughing,” says Witkovsky. “Laughter, for Williams, is a certain defiance of control.” There are several other laughing revolutionaries throughout the show.

Where have I seen this image before?

Artforum featured it on their cover in 2006, a year after Williams made it. But it also mimics advertising imagery and stock photography, so you’ve probably seen someone like Meiko selling eye cream. The photo has an unusually long title (see caption) that references the photo’s technical aspects.

Why do artists love him?

Williams might be called an “artist’s artist.” “He’s punk and sincere and intelligent,” says Chicago artist Andrew Green, who cites Williams as an influence. But sometimes understanding his art is work. “Just go with it” at that point, says Green.

Is it okay to leave utterly confused?

Witkovsky answered this one enthusiastically: “Uncertainty is absolutely productive in the art of Christopher Williams.” Question everything. Question what you’re told. Question yourself. And if that works for you, the catalog is definitely worth diving into.

Christopher Williams, The Production Line of Happiness, shows through May 18 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Bonus: The museum is free for Illinois residents (weekdays only) through February 12.