Khedoori, Toba

Immense Miniatures
by Jerry Saltz

Three facts of biography seem pertinent to Toba Khedoori's giant, space-filled drawings. First, she lives in Los Angeles, although she was born and raised in Australia. Second, she is an identical twin (her sister is Rachel Khedoori, an artist who also lives and works in Los Angeles). A distant but fascinating third (and -- like the other two -- one the artist might find objectionable) is that her family is originally from Iraq. Her cultural heritage includes the Persian miniature, fine of line and exquisite of detail.

Khedoori's second solo show at David Zwirner is better than her first, which was already more than good enough. The drawings here are of a more consistent level, although unfortunately Khedoori has cut back on her color -- hopefully only momentarily. Hopefully, because color adds a note of needed seductiveness to her spare, cerebral art.

Khedoori is a visionary minimalist -- an artist who depicts minimalism's three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. She draws on enormous sheets of paper that have the effect of immense miniatures, or mirages, shimmering in and out of sight: you do a lot of blinking and eye rubbing around her work. Her subjects are man-made places and things: doors, rooms, furniture and buildings; all of them strikingly devoid of any sign of life. Although her pared-down images can be likened to the big, empty space of Ed Ruscha (without the irony), or the uninflected expanses of Vija Celmins, she is emerging as something like her generation's Agnes Martin: an artist of metaphysical refinement and restraint.

Some would say Khedoori's is an art of taste, that it lacks substance, or that it is just big, boring and gimmicky. A lot of people just look at it and walk away. Like so much visionary art, her work is singularly lacking in humor; you miss Ruscha's wit. Khedoori's work is bare, even bland, but her temperament is so weird and her approach to all the elements of her art so curious, that these huge, bone-dry things take on a Platonic weight that turns them into tabernacles of vision.

Her drawings have always seemed like perfect California art: drenched in the tangible, omnipresent, transfiguring light that is Los Angeles's treasure. It's all-light-all-the-time and it's everywhere. It's the light that makes us envy them -- the light that, in spite of their supposed dearth of "real" culture, makes them silently smug. Khedoori depicts this light as if it were a substantive thing. She places you in that strange, existential space that pervades Los Angeles, where you're alone a lot. The horizon slips away, points of reference blur, spaces in between have an implacable presence and objects take on an intensity and a life of their own. Everything you see, you really see -- or at least you think you do, because more often than not, there's no one there to confirm it. Khedoori's work makes all this palpable.

Her process has a certain '70s echo about it. Khedoori coats huge, Richard Serra-sized panels of paper in viscous emulsions of synthetic wax, then scrapes them smooth with a razor. She selects an object, photographs it from multiple angles (or occasionally makes a model and photographs it), then she begins to draw. After numerous full-scale preparatory sketches, the final image is transferred directly onto the paper (she never draws on the surface). Then, with a workmanlike lack of bravura, she paints the image in oil paint and staples the finished drawing directly to the wall.

Warts of wax, footprints (human and dog), loose staples, dust a flurry of hairs cover her surfaces in a witch's brew of reality. It gets a little formulaic, but this detritus functions like the threads in paper money: as authenticating marks. As in frescos, surface and image merge into one contiguous solidity. And while Serra's black drawings have a flat, dense materiality, Khedoori's work radiates an illustrative, translucent ethereality.
Khedoori, 35, sees with the eyes of an outsider, or a stranger: everything catches her attention, nothing is normal. She has an uncanny feel for duplication and twoness -- or, more accurately, a more-than-oneness. In the past she has depicted a set of stairs, an array of windows and a wall of doors. She has drawn singular objects with repeating patterns: a chain-link fence, a train, empty seats in an auditorium. Possessed of an enigmatic appreciation for the home, its psychologically charged spaces and transcendental geometries, she often projects her sense of doubling onto domestic architecture.

In the five untitled works at Zwirner, there are images of rooms, buildings, a skeletal model of a building (or a jungle-gym maze thing) and furniture. In one piece, Khedoori draws two doors on perpendicular walls -- a corner of a room with doors leading to other equally empty rooms. One door is a quarter open, the other opens further. Space multiplies and place goes quicksilver. An ominous, deserted air lingers. The construction of these rooms feels recent, unarticulated and impermanent -- in other words, very Californian.

A sameness or a similarity pervades Khedoori's art. The two doors, windows, or whatever, may seem alike, but she knows, at a biological, almost phenomenological level -- in the way that twins know -- that things that appear similar are in fact distinct. She has an intrinsic understanding of doubling and the duality of experience. That may be partly why her objects are not rooted on the paper, and inhabit a strange, disembodied, somewhat sculptural, almost supernatural space.

This trippy here-and-thereness pours off an image of a Spartan wooden table and a straight-back chair. You look at one piece of furniture, then the other. The two are together, but occupy slightly different horizontal space -- in the same family, but of a different order. There is a spiky disproportion to everything in a Khedoori: perspective quivers, planes shift, you never know what's off.

In the largest work in the show (and the weakest, because it lacks psychic focus), Khedoori depicts the grid of a deserted city that doubles as a hilltop view of Los Angeles. Only the buildings are laid out so sparsely that you drift back in time, to the '20s or the '30s, when Los Angeles was still a promise. As with many of Khedoori's places, this "city" exudes a Hopperesque solitude, and a haunted, Raymond Chandler sense of mystery. No one is here: it's just you, it, the light, and your eye.

In an image of three repeating rooms -- one stacked atop another--Khedoori lets her minimalist roots show. This Judd-like stack is shifted dramatically to the middle of the composition, or to the extreme right of the left-hand panel of paper. True to form, these lifeless--decidedly abstract--"rooms" can take you away: each has a door with white light streaming through it.

Strangely, I found myself thinking, "If I were in prison, I'd like to have one of these drawings on my wall." Then I remembered a story by Herman Hesse: a prisoner paints a landscape on the wall of his cell, showing a miniature train entering a tunnel. He makes himself very tiny, enters into his picture, climbs into the little train, which starts moving, then disappears into the tunnel, leaving his cell empty.

JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.