Toba Khedoori, the artist now on exhibit at PAMM, sounds as if she has a fascinating backstory. She is from a Jewish Iraqi family, born and raised in Australia, and is an identical twin. PAMM director Franklin Sirmans, who curated a slightly smaller version of this show for LACMA, where he was formerly head of contemporary art, says Khedoori doesn’t like to talk about or draw attention to herself (he laughed when I said I’d love to interview her), that she wants people to focus entirely on her work.
The show and even Sirmans’ preview tour don’t offer much in the way of interpretation. (Sirmans, again, says Khedoori doesn’t want even a hint of a narrative at the back of our brain.) The show’s title is simply the artist’s name. Each of the pieces is called Untitled, with a word in parentheses to indicate what’s in it, i.e. Untitled (doors), Untitled (hallway), and so on.
The pieces initially seem quiet, simple. But there are layers on layers. She’s got the world in a blade of grass – or a window frame or bit of chain link fence. Or a drawing.
Some – ok, too much, at least in my limited experience – contemporary work seems to revolve around a form of conceptual pun, or a play on ideas, which often need to be elaborately explained. I’m of the mind that if an explanation is essential to getting anything out of the art, you might as well just give me the press release or the expository caption on the wall – it’s an illustration of an idea rather than art. Moreover, I tend to think such art is one-dimensional and ultimately dull. Once you get it, that’s all you get.
But the concepts in Khedoori’s work emerge from looking, and they multiply the more you look. She apparently takes a very long time to finish a piece. This survey, from the beginning of her career in the early 90’s to the most recent pieces, has approximately 30 works – not much for twenty-plus years. (It includes, not so incidentally, two drawings of a hand and forearm that Sirmans says are the first time she’s ever drawn the human figure.)
But the time that Khedoori invests in her work turns out to be crucial to what makes them so multi-dimensional. Her pieces pull you into a world of their own, which is also the world of art itself.
A number have an exactly placed image at the center, which becomes a kind of portal into a dimension that’s both of and beyond the flat linen or paper surface. In Untitled (hole), white space is revealed through a rough-edged punch through a black surface. A square fireplace burns through a huge black surface in Untitled (black fireplace). Other drawings, of a hallway, a succession of rooms, a walkway receding into a point, lead into a beckoning infinity.
I was particularly intrigued by Untitled (doors), where two doorways, set close together on the two angled walls of a corner, open into what could be two different realities. The perspective is ever so slightly mismatched, with one door higher than the other – portals into two seemingly identical but impossibly joined realities. (Remember, Khedoori has a twin sister.)
Everything is meticulously drawn, but it’s not a photo-realist aspiration – you notice the craft, the draughtsmanship, the sheer drawingness of these images. The drawing itself is the key, the magic doorway into and through the surface, the process by which a piece of paper is transformed into much more. Untitled (chain-link fence) shows an empty square of metal fencing, and the shading that defines the rounded twists of metal is so detailed that it seems impossible that it could have been executed by hand. And yet only a person could outline these minute details. In Untitled (grid), a lattice of thin black lines on pale linen is varied so that humps and hills and valleys appear; two-dimensional regularity becomes three-dimensional irregularity. It’s a kind of geometric pointillism.
Other works create infinity through replication and implication. In Untitled (doors) long horizontal rows of blue doors march across the paper. At first glance, they seem blandly identical. But the closer you look, the more differential details emerge – different shades of blue, stains on the wall, shading on the railings. The doors are infinitely different. The top and bottom rows fade into nothingness, implying that these infinitely different doorways continue, ad infinitum, above and below, even though we can’t see them.
That same effect of initial sameness that becomes a dizzying infinity of difference is multiplied to a dizzying degree in Untitled (buildings/windows), which shows a much larger, tower-shaped grid of much tinier windows.
But again, the closer you look the more different they are: shades up, shades down, partly, entirely, in differing tones of white and pale brown, chunks of light and black, an abstract, varied pattern that becomes more realistic the closer you look. Again, infinite possibilities in the tiny details of a solid, seemingly repetitious world.
Toba Khedoori is on exhibit at PAMM through Sept. 24th. You could take almost that much time to absorb everything she has to show. Go.