Artforum / October 2007

Davide Cantoni
DANEYAL MAHMOOD GALLERY

Using perhaps the most appropriate method imaginable for the making of a summer show, Davide Cantoni produced the works in his recent debut outing at Daneyal Mahmood Gallery with the help of a classic childhood stunt: burning paper by using a magnifying glass to focus and direct the rays of the sun. Recalling instances of “destructive” painterly and graphic technique from Gustav Metzger’s “acid action paintings” to William S. Burroughs’s shot-peppered planks, the Brooklyn-based artist’s drawings exhibit a range and subtlety of marks and other traces that suggest he has invested considerable time in honing the technique (one might ascertain just how much time, perhaps, from the shade of his tan).

Working on thin, translucent vellum and using graphite powder to sketch out his images prior to charring, Cantoni imbues his work with a disarming fragility. Its ephemeral quality is all the more striking given its sources—news photographs appropriated from the New York Times that depict, mostly, scenes of conflict, disaster, and poverty. Critic Alexi Worth describes the artist’s reinterpretation of these shots as “a form of ‘untranslation,’” a process of alteration that renders their compositions and contents newly ambiguous and ultimately reaffirms the strangeness—the combined familiarity and remoteness—of the events they represent.

Beirut, 2007, for example, renders what looks like a tumbledown bridge crisscrossed by wires as a complex tracery of fine brown lines juxtaposed with larger, jagged-edged fi ssures that—in this thematic context in particular—evoke bullet holes and bomb craters. The work looks as if it is not only blasted but also withering, decaying, on the verge of collapsing back into singed remnants of its component parts. Flooded Road, Indonesia, 2007, is more damaged-looking still—an intricate, fragmented landscape in which figures merge with their surroundings, the field of apparently casual marks recalling Brion Gysin’s impossibly dense crowd scenes. Old Man, China, 2007, is comparable but retains more of the graphite powder than the newer works, a fine scattering of dark gray dust distributed across its surface like ash.

In harnessing the capacity of light to physically transform a surface, and in utilizing a source of journalistic record, Cantoni’s project operates as a reminder both of photography’s technical basis and of its theoretical straddling of life and death, its role as Barthesian memento mori. His works illustrate not only the demise of their ostensible subjects but also their own limited life span as documentary artifacts—and by extension the transient and mutable nature of even the most purportedly authoritative news media. What is pictured in works like Washing in the River, New Delhi, 2007, are events that have been fixed, temporarily, but appear already to be collapsing back into events once more, their scorched surfaces both visualizations of memory and the violent negation thereof.

The exhibition also marked Cantoni’s debut foray into video: SOL, 2007, is a looped thirty-second animation portraying, with neat self-reflexivity, the sun in frame-filling close-up. The stuttering motion and effervescent texture of the solar disk recall photographic treatments of the same subject, produced using technology familiar only to professional astronomers, which are occasionally aired on television to illustrate new cosmic discoveries. That Cantoni’s take on the subject combines high-tech presentation with a determinedly organic process makes for a satisfyingly rounded result. And projected here opposite LUNA (Moon), 2007, a multisheet drawing of the Earth’s satellite on about the same scale, SOL made for an elegant beginning (and end point) to the show.