At Slifka Center magnifying glasses not included

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At arm’s length, you might not notice that Danielle Durchslag’s saturated photographs and paintings are actually all tiny collages. Her show at the Slifka Center, “Relative Unknowns,” is as intricate as it is intimate: cut from hundreds of pieces of paper, Durchslag’s collages are based on vintage photographs of her unnamed ancestors culled from family albums and attics.

A boy squints in front of wall, a mother and son pose in a Polaroid paper frame. In another, a husband-wife pair, enveloped in a cocoon of white paper, follow the unwritten rule of portraiture by gazing wistfully towards opposite points in space. They are placed in the original frame from the photo, which reads, “Fox Bros. in Chicago.”

The exhibit’s most compelling work looms largely in the center of the unfortunately sparse room. In it, a family sits for a portrait. The husband and two children are negative constructions cut out of black paper whose shadow arms grasp like roots at the fully colored and detailed matriarch’s figure. She alone stands in stark relief, cut out of white paper, at once connected and liberated.

Her thin white dress is crumpled, patterned with trees and textured, with ruffles that pop in and out of the page with the three dimensionality of real clothing’s folds. Likewise, the frame pushes into reality as her small foot overhangs the paper to which she is affixed, placing pressure on the room, about to break into our world. The protrusion makes her presence lifelike and anxious, tense and all knowing. She at once becomes the prescient, inescapable, overpowering Jewish mother whose omnipotent gaze and subtle physicality indiscriminately implicate the room with equal doses of guilt and approbation.

But whether Durchslag is making a larger point about history’s influence is hard to say. Her work throughout the exhibition engages with the artistic appropriation of Jewish trauma and loss, similar to the attempts of the historian to reconcile and absorb past history with the present.

But it’s not my family so why do I care? Out of impersonal rote photography, Durchslag creates fifteen uniquely subjective works by breaking a portrait down to its essentials as she sees them. In rearranging and emphasizing different pieces of seemingly boring photographs, Durchslag ingeniously solves the dilemma of how to get other people to look at your pictures of complete strangers. Her ancestors, even unknown to herself, then emerge as distinctly articulated opinions, more lifelike, faces chastened by smoothed corners, and expressions energized by reworked edges. The result is more thoughtful and deliberate than Photoshop’s toolbar.

Skilled with texture and color, she blends sepia tones, dark maroons and bronze tints as spotlights to cast features into depth and relief. Through the careful layering of rough and smooth transparent papers, Durchslag saves these images from the flattening and fatal sameness that is photography’s greatest flaw. And the physicality and actual life force captured by the 3-D collage makes the exhibit necessary to go see in person, if only because you can’t see it any other way.

As the people in these cutouts lose certain individuating features, the most important one — corporeal existence ­— is restored. Thanks to Durchslag we not only believe, but also understand, that at another point in time, not so different from our own, these men and women lived in a body and had bright smiles and soft dresses — and again she lets them stand out.

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