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.
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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.
Khedoori has been developing a body of work that is based on reliably straight and unexpressive lines. They are reminiscent of those in architectural drawings but rendered on a sensual, thick paper treated with wax. In graphite and oil she paints serial structures, single and multiple objects from a standardized production line, as well as accumulations of individual, mostly natural, elements on large sheets of white paper. The artist’s practice unites aspects of drawing and painting to the point of merging them. Her motifs draw from unoccupied architectural fragments like building facades, common playground structures, the brick walls of a tunnel, a metal fence, a pedestrian overpass, a row of windows, and other familiar serial objects from daily life. In newer works she also includes singular objects or accumulations of non-identical parts, such as mosaic pieces, branches, grass, and clouds of smoke. It is here in the mundane, where one least expects to find an engagement with sensuality and intrinsic human needs, that she manifests it.
Within the vastness of the image Khedoori coaxes us to focus on the details: her direct placement of the image onto the connection line of two sheets of paper feels like a distinct hint of the image’s sudden failure to embody the illusion of representation. Close inspection of the works undermines any assumptions about their relationship to emptiness or visual economy and the absence of timely references. Although Khedoori does not depict living beings, their presence is evoked in the traces they leave behind: she prepares her surface with a thin layer of synthetic wax, which is laboriously melted, then puddled and scraped over the paper. From there, her motifs, sometimes drawn from photographs, other times drawn freely, might develop into obsessively repetitive structures.
Or, conversely, their execution is abruptly stopped, their lines or color fading out or missing a small detail in, for example, an incomplete handrail (as in “Untitled (overpass),” 1994). By breaking with the excessive attention to detail, rigid structures, stability, and seriality, Khedoori makes us look more closely at the objects and observe their missing links or the hidden meanings of her decisions in execution, color, and composition. The color and shading of the row of windows in a work such as “Untitled (buildings/windows)” (1994) seems almost random. And yet, the logic of their uneven rendering beckons consideration, as some windows are only sketched and others are detailed, with open or closed blinds.
In other works we see parts of the images transferred to the final paper, as, for instance, in the brick walls of “Untitled” (2018), which are rubbed onto the paper next to the centerpiece. By using the frottage technique, it seems here as if the image were represented by its own ghostly doppelgänger. The waxed surface holds traces of the artist herself. We may find her fingerprints, her smears, her blue jeans lightly rubbing against the paper, strands of her hair and snatches of her dogs’ fur, as well as the studio’s dust. What at first appears stripped of time and place, soon reveals itself as a visible record — a trace of time.
In this way, the more you look at Khedoori’s work, the more it transforms — what comes across as empty space at first becomes thick, chromatically complex, and condensed. Line becomes volume, rigid structure develops texture, and precision reveals indeterminacy or even hesitancy. What appears colorless at first becomes full of chromatic nuances; even the yellowing surface of older works speaks to temporal process.
Khedoori’s survey show invites us to see more clearly and more intensely. Within their simplicity and lightness her works convey key features of architecture as they serve our longing for stability, permanence, and communication. Maybe now, more than ever, we are longing to feel that our structures are reliable. The body to body encounter with Khedoori’s monumental images, their slow and sensual waxed surfaces, contributes a sense of intimacy to the act of looking while the emptiness expresses the human desire for contact with others.
Toba Khedoori continues at the Fridericianum (Friedrichsplatz 18, Kassel, Germany) through February 20. The exhibition was curated by Moritz Wesseler with Alexandra Sommer and Julia Schleis.