Knowing nothing about the subjects (except that they're criminals—allegedly) allows our sinister fantasies to come out to play. Jack (2012), a white guy with a goatee, looks like an Appalachian tweaker. Kwame (2012), a black man, lifts his chin in defiance of the cop behind the camera. Heather (2012) is blond and pretty, but the photographer seems to have caught her as she passed out; still, she looks like she should be sitting at the gallery reception desk, not in a cell.
The works themselves are gorgeously precise. Durham manages to capture facial expressions as well as contours and texture with his streams of gibberish, an effect that echoes Paula Scher's maps built of words. Inscribed into the thick surface of the paper, which Durham makes himself, the writing achieves a tactile quality. At close range, the portraits take on the texture of a shaggy rug.
Durham's texts have a bittersweet subtext: Nicole Klagsbrun plans to close the doors of her gallery at the end of the exhibition. Klagsbrun could have gone out any way she wanted, but in choosing Durham, a sobering young artist whose work is concurrently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., she has signaled that she wants to depart gracefully—and quietly. "He first brought his work to me on a truck from rural Kentucky," she says. "Now he's being embraced by the art world."