New York

Andrea Bowers, Nonviolent Protest Training, Abalone Alliance Camp, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and San Louis Obispo County Telegraph-Tribune, September 14, 1981 (detail), 2004, graphite pencil on paper, 38 x 49 3/4". From “Drawn from Photography.”

Andrea Bowers, Nonviolent Protest Training, Abalone Alliance Camp, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and San Louis Obispo County Telegraph-Tribune, September 14, 1981 (detail), 2004, graphite pencil on paper, 38 x 49 3/4". From “Drawn from Photography.”

Drawn from Photography

Drawing Center

Andrea Bowers, Nonviolent Protest Training, Abalone Alliance Camp, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and San Louis Obispo County Telegraph-Tribune, September 14, 1981 (detail), 2004, graphite pencil on paper, 38 x 49 3/4". From “Drawn from Photography.”

In 1927, critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote, “Never before has an age been so informed about itself, if being informed means having an image of objects that resembles them in a photographic sense.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. To him, the seemingly infinite archive of world events produced by photography conflates surface appearance with psychological depth, iconicity with memory, publicity with history. For the artists assembled in Claire Gilman’s kickoff exhibition as curator of the Drawing Center, the superficial mapping Kracauer warned of can be arrested only by a seemingly paradoxical process: keeping photographic resemblances intact, but dismantling their instantaneity and technological reproducibility via the meticulous labor of drawing. Artists such as Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, Richard Forster, Karl Haendel, and Frank Selby, among thirteen total in the exhibition, hand-copy photographs and photo-based media, thereby lengthening the duration of the image’s production and, for the viewer, transforming perception by fastidiously rendering what once presented itself with glossy immediacy.

One of the challenges these artists face is how to sift out empathetic identification from sensationalist rubbernecking or bland iconicity in photojournalistic images portraying the suffering of others. Durant and Selby do so by appropriating images of civil rights and antiwar protests in the 1960s. As familiar as these types of illustrations of police violence are in our historical imagination, they are rarely considered closely; instead, such images tend to emblematize the general trope of protest action. The careful rendering of subtle facial features and gestures by Durant and Selby, however, draws out idiosyncrasies of these singular instants immobilized by the camera, conveying a series of contingent moments that humanize the participants. Other artists, such as Andrea Bowers, call attention to events that are frequently overlooked in the news media’s spectacularization of politics. Her drawings of nonviolent protest training sessions, such as those leading to the 1981 detention of 1,900 activists fighting the construction of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant in San Luis Obispo, California, depict participants as they practice using physical passivity to resist arrest. However, in contrast to now-familiar images of limp bodies being dragged away by riot police, Bowers’s images exhibit activists in a spirit of levity and community, assuming the roles of their antagonists with broad grins.

The artists in this show also seek to remediate news coverage that leaves viewers stranded as distant witnesses to history-making collective action. Karl Haendel’s Untitled (Birthday Drawing), 2000, uses the artist’s hand to merge the foreign and the intimate. Taking as his source the front page of Pravda, the Soviet Union’s official newspaper, from an edition published on the date of his birth, July 1, 1976, Haendel painstakingly duplicates columns and headlines of text written in a language and an alphabet he cannot read. For Haendel and indeed for most of us, the day of one’s birth is an anonymous occasion, hardly fit for public commemoration (in Russia or anywhere else), but here he connects the personal to world events. In Rehearsed Inability to Know This (Un)Place, 2009, Richard Forster takes a more physically proximate but no less fraught object as his muse: the giant Corus steel plant that he used to pass daily on a train ride to his studio in Middlesbrough, UK. At the time, the plant was threatened with closure; Forster shot twelve photographs from the train, rendered them in pencil, and later reproduced the indistinct topography the images suggest in a highly schematic architectural model. Both Haendel and Forster make what cannot be directly, tactilely experienced physical. For the artists of “Drawn from Photography,” the attempt to enable confrontations with the normally overlooked detail demands a labor of repeated mark-making, as though to fuse history and memory, the two targets that are always moving in the flux of photography’s endless archive.

Eva Díaz