New York

Christian Denzler

Rivington Arms

Thanks to a stretch of skylights, Rivington Arms is an atypically bright gallery, and in the glare of the afternoon sun, Christian Denzler’s nine new untitled drawings looked initially like nothing more than a row of large white sheets of paper set in white frames, so faint are his marks. “Portraits of Unknown Persons” was, with one exception, exactly that, its subjects derived from old photographs the Brussels-based Swiss artist collects from flea markets, then enlarges, traces, and redraws with the lightest of light touches.

Found photography, even found-at-fl ea-market photography, is well-trod contemporary territory (Tacita Dean’s Floh, 2001; Pierre Huyghe and Douglas Coupland’s School Spirit, 2003; any number of works by Christian Boltanski), and the project of drawing found photographs seems at first academic. One’s immediate critical impulse, equally academic, is to dig out André Breton’s musings on the marché aux puces and—especially after learning that the single identified subject in Denzler’s American debut was his grandmother, who had recounted tales of her travels to New York to him—Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980). The latter, however, yields little: In Denzler’s translation of photograph to drawing, any intimation of death (a feeling Barthes sensed most acutely in the contemplation of portrait photography) vanishes. One knows that his unsmiling women and children, done up in their Sunday best, are long since gone, but no pathos or poignancy follows from the knowledge, only information—this is what early portrait photographs looked like. “That,” in Barthes’s “that-has-been” formulation of the ontology of the photograph, refers to the subject of the image; Denzler’s “that” is the old photograph itself.

These drawings are unlike photographs, yet are executed in a photographic manner: In the indirection of tracing and in the utterly uniform application of graphite, the artist imparts to the handmade nature of his medium some of the mechanical qualities of his source material. Forms emerge as if on a negative, as the absence of presence; in several works, starched collars and lace ruffs are limned entirely in outline. At the same time, however, the drawings mark their distance from Denzler’s flea-market finds, as one realizes that these smooth, sober faces are derived from images that were likely grainy, faded, or cracked from dryness, or curling from humidity (a sampling from his collection appeared on the invitation card to the show). That a certain wistfulness accompanies this recognition suggests the interest of the work: It hints at a lingering attachment to the analogue at a moment when the future of the mode, and of its objects, is uncertain.

An excerpt from Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami (1885) was applied to the wall opposite the drawings: “There’ll be millions, billions of individuals born who will all have, within the space of a few centimeters, a nose, eyes, a forehead, cheeks, and a mouth as I have . . . different in indefinable ways, yet all approximately similar.” Here, indeed, all difference is cosmetic, the upshot of variations in hairstyle and clothing, and the homogeneity in Denzler’s renderings calls up what many have identified as the digital’s tendency to flatten and level. His portraits of unknown persons, found once as photographs, anticipate a subsequent disappearance.

Lisa Turvey