KASSEL, Germany — Can the unvarnished, empty space of unoccupied architecture and the emotionless architectural line, with its ghostly presence, provide an intimate experience of human trace? Can tectonic structures be witness to our longing for communication and stability? Toba Khedoori’s survey exhibition poses these questions as it offers sensual relief in our pandemic times.
Despite her international success, Toba Khedoori at the Fridericianum is the artist’s first institutional solo exhibition in Germany. Curated by Fridericianum director Moritz Wesseler, along with Alexandra Sommer and Julia Schleis, it presents a grand survey of graphic and painterly images by the artist created between 1994 and 2021.
It opens with a prelude in the museum’s rotunda: three black and white photographs of the artist by her twin sister, Rachel Khedoori, also an internationally renowned artist. These portraits, from 1995, show Toba Khedoori with her back to the camera, standing on a ladder as she works on a nine-meter-long drawing in her Los Angeles apartment. The focus on the architectural space and utilitarian tool — the ladder — reflects Khedoori’s own artwork, while the photograph as a medium, which Roland Barthes has proclaimed famously as a trace itself, can be seen as symbolic of her work’s subtler qualities. Toba Khedoori’s monumental images depict decontextualized architectural-spatial fragments and details of nature’s formations, in which the trace becomes a major feature.
Entering the exhibition’s first room the visitor is confronted with three artworks, which depict a window looking into darkness; a long walkway; and a wooden stick along with its shadow. In its simplicity, this room holds the key aspects of Khedoori’s work, as well as essential categories of painting and drawing in general. First, the artwork as a “window to the world,” as it has been widely described since Leon Battista Alberti — only in this case the viewer looks at a black monochrome instead, revealing its density and color variation. In the image of the long walkway, the artist develops the concept of perspective, while the wooden stick focuses on volumetric representation.
Perspective, depth, and color are at play in all of Khedoori’s works made between 1993 and 2021. Since 2008 her formats have become considerably smaller, her depictions more colorful and more photographic, but they still share this interest. They speak to us about their metaphorical qualities, too, of a window as an image, a cipher, a form of communication. Khedoori’s work has often been divided into “early” (through 2007) and “late” (2008 on) periods in exhibition and catalogue narratives, which can come across as simplistic. Here, though, this temporal division contributes to the viewer’s understanding by uncovering similarities as well as differences.
Artist Toba Khedoori Explores the Space Between
I first met Toba Khedoori when she was a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of California in Los Angeles. I was an undergraduate at the same university, hesitating between majors. I remember being both captivated and disoriented by her work when I first saw it. The elements of her paintings, like the words in a poem, were familiar to me. Yet in their composition and interaction, they acquired an ambiguous form of estrangement. Khedoori covers the large sheets of paper that she habitually paints on with wax, turning them into a palimpsest that retains and embalms the incidental traces of her activity. Her renderings often float against an absence of background, context, or place. Whereas the works of many of her contemporaries are relentlessly framed by texts and paratexts, Khedoori’s paintings are made all the more eloquent by the self-effacement of their author.
Since then, I have kept looking, thinking, and occasionally writing about her work. My relationship to it has evolved, but in a curious manner. The artist, who is Australian-born and of Iraqi descent, creates paintings that lead me back to that initial feeling of interrogation, meaning to question in between, from within the space of an interval. Certain artworks or bodies of work require additional information, or address themselves to external ideas.
In Khedoori’s case, it is instead one’s own knowledge, habits, and preconceptions that are called into question. The intensity of her work’s interrogation has not waned for me over time, but has instead deepened and become more acute, adapting and responding to the shifts and evolutions in my thinking.
The first work that one sees upon entering her current exhibition—which is on view at the Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, until February 20, 2022—is “Untitled (window)” (1999). It consists of three large sheets of paper, stapled to the wall. A precisely rendered window adorns the central sheet, not quite in the middle of the paper, but slightly off-center. The two additional pieces of paper have been left unmarked, except for a layer of wax. The glass of the window has been painted an opaque indigo, bordering on black. As we can no longer look through its virtual panes, we are left to gaze at the window itself, its frame and structure. The painting allows us to look at something we normally only look through, imbuing it with an active presence. Moreover, the work is accompanied only by the most literal of titles. Toba Khedoori is not an artist who surrounds her works with language, turning them into vehicles for ideas, intentions, or positions. The task of interpretation is left strictly to the viewer.
Review: Artist Toba Khedoori’s new work whispers for a closer look
Toba Khedoori burst onto the scene 20 years ago with small drawings on gigantic sheets of paper. Her realistic depictions of interiors and exteriors seemed to say: “Come in for a close look, and don’t forget to block out all of the distractions that might prevent you from focusing.”
At Regen Projects, the L.A. artist’s fourth solo hometown show features much smaller works: domestically scaled graphite drawings and oils on canvas and linen. What Khedoori’s works give up in size they get back in intensity, not to mention self-assuredness, maturity, pragmatism and generosity.
Some turn the structure of her early works inside out. Rather than presenting viewers with an image surrounded by a vast expanse of wax-coated emptiness, Khedoori puts emptiness front and center.
Two pieces depict walls into which holes appear to have been punched. The compositions of two others are interrupted by what appears to be the glare from a camera’s flash. Bright light forms a blind spot in all four, creating a glitch in vision that makes you look more attentively.
Review: At LACMA’s Toba Khedoori show, enchanting mysteries burn beneath a fragile surface
What is burning in Toba Khedoori’s fireplace?
In 2005, the L.A.-based artist made a painting of a domestic hearth ablaze, the life-size image rendered at viewer eye-level on an immense field of waxy white paper pieced together from two smaller sheets. (Overall, it’s more than 11 feet tall and 16 feet wide.) A year later, she reproduced the same image for a second giant painting on paper, this time embedded in a surrounding field of dense black pigment mixed with wax.
Both works turn up midway through an absorbing 20-year-plus survey of Khedoori’s work newly opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Former LACMA curator Franklin Sirmans, now director of Pérez Art Museum Miami, organized the show with LACMA’s Christine Y. Kim. Khedoori’s exquisitely drawn works are known for the excruciating care she takes in their rendering, so it’s a puzzlement that the material going up in smoke in the fireplace is hard to identify.
Those are not logs. The fuel might be books, given some vaguely boxy shapes, or maybe wadded up documents. Cut-up kindling?
Or — who knows — maybe a sheaf of drawings?
Whatever the case, the cozy warmth of hearth and home requires incineration, a transfer of energy in which something is lost and something gained. Much of Khedoori’s work seems a concentrated meditation on similar dichotomies. A fire in the fireplace is something one stares into for the purpose of getting lost — and finding refreshment in the process.