News & Views

Idris Khan at Victoria Miro, London

Kasia Maciejowska Ocula 25 May 2015
Installation view, Idris Khan, Conflicting Lines at Victoria Miro, London

At 36 years old, Idris Khan is getting life right. His North London studio is housed in a row of all-white connected warehouse spaces, the ambience inside is calm and professional, yet relaxed and friendly. With his wife, the established artist Annie Morris, he bought one warehouse unit after another several years ago before converting them into a sleek complex. He photographs in one, she sculpts in the next, and they paint in the third beneath a mezzanine of Mac-topped desks. The serenity of the studio poses a sharp contrast to the new artworks made by Khan for his current solo show at Victoria Miro gallery, which are pre-dominantly dark in subject matter as well as appearance.

Called Conflicting Lines, Khan’s latest exhibition takes war as its theme. Continuing his exploration of repetition and its role in memory, he picks out elements from war photography and writing, and hones in on their particular resonance through reiteration and distortion. His work is characterised by a fondness for cross-reference. Drawing on modernist art history for elements of gestural abstraction and minimal aesthetics, on religion, literature and music for humanistic content, and exploring experimental processes, Khan’s work condenses material from these broad sources into his own meditative, and disciplined style.

Installation view, Idris Khan, Conflicting Lines, 2015, at Victoria Miro, London. Image courtesy Victoria Miro
Khan grew up a British Muslim in Birmingham and was picked up by Victoria Miro after his MFA at the Royal College of Art in 2004. A decade of international exhibitions followed, including at The Guggenheim, plus commissions from the British Museum and the The New York Times, and a collaboration with Wayne McGregor for Switzerland's contemporary dance biennale. Despite his success, Khan seems free from pretensions; he talks about his work as part of the contemporary canon without sounding grandiose. At this juncture, he explains, he finds himself drawn to painting but through the filter of photography, a medium in which he feels at home.

Conflicting Lines comprises a set of large photographs of canvases filled and written across in black oil stick by the artist’s own hand; Khan has scrawled phrases over and over in giant handwriting across the canvases, layering black on black so that the wording can’t be made out. These works are shown in Victoria Miro’s Mayfair space alongside photographic works from his older Church Walk Studio series, which are reminiscent of soft watercolours. Both series blur the boundaries between photography and painting, a longstanding preoccupation of Khan’s, which he’s processing by becoming increasingly gestural. He mentions that earlier in production he was considering exhibiting the canvases, which evolved into the Conflicting Lines photographs, but decided he had yet to develop his own standalone painting style.

Installation view, Idris Khan, Conflicting Lines, 2015, at Victoria Miro, London. Image courtesy Victoria Miro
The script in Khan’s work is derived from sources such as poetry and photography: a line from a poem, or a detail from a photograph. He then distorts what he has appropriated beyond recognition. Despite the distortion, he seeks to retain the keynote and essence of what led him to use it, attuning its tone through the filter of his treatments. Speaking about his text-based pieces he comments, “Collectors sometimes ask to know what the script says but I prefer not to tell them as I feel it would somehow circumvent the magic and context of the artwork if they were able to pin down the precise wording”.

This blurring of meaning forces Khan’s audience to replace denotation with connotation and opens up a viewing space for association and consideration. He has been committed to this sort of abstraction throughout his career. His minimalist style and form is a result of his process, and his taste for disciplined aesthetics informs it. This allows for a sense of pensive quiet to emanate from the works. It also serves to understate the emotive and human content, stripping any possible hyperbole from grand subjects such as war or faith, and in doing so allowing their gravity to be perceived in the works’ simplicity.

In the centre of his studio, Khan shows me a maquette of a gallery with mock-up artworks in it that he plays with to test the layout for his next show, in September at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. “I like to get a feel for how the pieces will interact with each other, especially in such a large space where there are so many possibilities”, he says. In preparation for that exhibition a new sculpture is starting to take shape in the centre of the studio. Also currently in miniature, it’s made up of a series of glass sheets standing one after another, engraved with words that muddle together when viewed layered up like this. “The gallerist mentioned Duchamp when he saw this…”, Khan mumbles and trails off, presumably in reference to the Frenchman’s well-known framed glass installation The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). “I don’t worry about shifting between mediums and I’m not interested in who actually makes my various pieces: that doesn’t matter anymore”, he explains, underscoring his conceptualist attitude.

Installation view, Idris Khan, Conflicting Lines, 2015, at Victoria Miro, London. Image courtesy Victoria Miro
Khan’s frequent segues between media and dedication to an expansive research process (he received a distinction in the research aspect of his MFA) reflect a conceptual approach that is very much representative of the hybrid character of contemporary art now. Khan also embodies its globalised internationalism; he is inseparably both British and Pakistani-Muslim and married to a British-Jewish woman; and is unafraid of broaching those timeless subjects that have echoed through art history, and of addressing art history itself. Looking back, he describes graduating smoothly from one phase to another, feeling his way between mediums, but continually building on his love for photography. Stepping forward now, straight out of his Victoria Miro exhibition, which closes in June, and into his Sean Kelly exhibition, opening three months later, he finds himself surrounded by a body of elegant work that provides him with an existing language to continue, having spent the past decade consistently refining its subtle rhythms.—[O]