Startled, averted, jaunty, wary: the faces in Davide Cantoni’s pictures remind us of the quick, complicated responses that photographers elicit—and, in their own trickier, slower ways, that painters do too. For a painter like Cantoni, painting is almost a kind of photography. But there’s a lot riding on that shift from quickness to slowness, and on that innocuous “almost.”
For the last five years, Cantoni’s main enterprise has been to translate news photographs—quite literally, without prettification or editorializing. Even at its most expert, translation entails damage—little losses, shifts of meaning. Cantoni’s process makes that damage visible. His “Burn Drawings” seem to have survived some strangely delicate conflagration–in fact, the result of Cantoni’s unusual medium, sunlight directed through a magnifying glass. The surface of each drawing is tattered, singed, and frail. Often the vellum has burnt clean through, leaving irregular holes, like lacunae in antique texts. In his “White paintings,” the imagery itself is often simply invisible. We discover it in the process of pacing around. A pristine surface suddenly reveals an improbable, tragicicomical tableau—two soldiers frisking a child. Like a mislaid memory, it was always there. Step away, and it’s gone.
What Cantoni does is, really, a form of “untranslation.” He makes a visual lingua franca—the iconography of the New York Times– less intellgible. What had been documentary, authoritative, and institutional, becomes vulnerable, coy, idiosyncratic. What was infinite, becomes unique. Cantoni preserves the images, but he changes their qualities. One of the effects of this change is to return to us a fresh sense of the strangeness of the original event. Perhaps we remember a dead boy, stretched out on the streets of Genoa. Perhaps we can imagine the fate that awaits this somber soldier, with his Yankees cap and rocket launcher. The punctured surface of Cantoni’s drawing amplifies our forebodings. But above all, it reminds us how little we know, how far away we are.
Cantoni’s work belongs to a tradition of ambivalence about pictures. And yet, unlike Warhol and Richter, or for that matter Struth or Ruff, Cantoni makes images that seldom feel aloof. On the contrary, they have a kind of delicate earnestness, a whispered warmth. Cantoni labors with the steady attentiveness, and also the optimism, of a restorer. What is being restored is our capacity to connect, to engage, to imagine. But there’s not entreaty here, no obligations. Cantoni’s art offers a subtler kind of incitement, more compelling because it is almost invisible.