Toba Khedoori’s Enigmatic Scale at LACMA

Toba Khedoori. Photo Courtesy of LACMA.
Toba Khedoori. Photo Courtesy of LACMA.

Toba Khedoori’s Enigmatic Scale at LACMA

By Genie Davis

Through March 19th


Toba Khedoori’s works, now on exhibit at LACMA through March 19, 2017, are large scale, enigmatic, and precisely detailed. While born in Australia, Khedoori is very much a Los Angeles artist. Like the city, her paintings are large, even sprawling, with plenty of open space.

Poetic is one way to describe the show, curated by Franklin Sirmans and LACMA’s Christine Y. Kim. The exhibition features many works on a large scale that appear to be encompassing great distance. Primarily painted on paper in almost painstaking detail, these pieces are deeply absorbing, as if their vastness could swallow a viewer. It’s a contemplative experience viewing Khedoori’s work, in what is the first survey of her work for well over 15 years. Also on hand are recent pieces smaller in scale and created on linen.

Toba Khedoori. Photo Courtesy of LACMA.
Toba Khedoori. Photo Courtesy of LACMA.

Several of the most riveting large scale pieces on paper depict a life-size fireplace, represented in two ways, each measuring approximately 11 x 16 feet. One is created on white paper; the other, which the artist created a year later, is painted on a surface covered with black paint and wax. Paired in the same gallery, but at an angle from each other, they are equally fascinating but create a completely different sensation in the viewer. The fireplace with a white background seems remote, floating in space, the single concrete and home-like element on an empty stage.

The black pigmented piece, on the other hand, appears a void filled, the blazing fire a light in a solid darkness. In both cases, what is burning is the soul of the viewer, longing to find the warmth, the light, hearth and home. But do such ideals even exist, or are they merely ideas to be contemplated in the vast scope of art and time?

Toba Khedoori. Photo Courtesy of LACMA.
Toba Khedoori. Photo Courtesy of LACMA.

One of the fascinating things about these pieces and much of Khedoori’s oeuvre is the fact that her large scale paintings’ and her precise, almost delicate strokes create the impression of both, drawings and paintings. Unframed works, created in oils on a vast scale, create a kind of puzzlement for viewers as to meaning and intent.

They are painted tapestries, architectural drawings, murals, renderings of apartment buildings, vacant warehouses and/or what could be prison yards. We are shown doorways to deserted rooms, walkways that lead into blank space, windows obscured or shaded, gates locked. The large expanses of her paper that are left blank create an emotional void for viewers, one which we attempt to fill with meaning. Is all this space leading us to a conclusion? To a sense of impermanence? To focus on the creation at one end or the center of the paper? To see beyond it?

There is a dream-like quality to the artist’s work, where elements of architectural drawings merge with abstract expressionism. If her art were poetry, it would be a haiku smack in the middle of an other wise blank book.

Khedoori’s work pulls viewers in, asking them to define what they are seeing and the meaning of what they say; at the same time it pushes viewers away, forcing them to confront the abstract, to uncomfortably conclude that specific meaning, as detailed and perfectly designed as the paintings are, may be beside the point.

Another fascinating aspect of Khedoori’s process is the fact that her large paper works are covered with wax, both protective and personally distancing. There is a glaze over the subject, an imperfect one that includes dust and brush marks. The painting style may be pristine, but the presentation is as imperfect as life itself.

The objects and locations depicted are clearly defined, but the surface is illusive, wavering, slightly opaque, and veiled.

LACMA’s exhibition features 25 works, of which seven are conventionally sized oil on linen works. These, while less dramatic and obviously far smaller in scale, continue to assert the artist’s somehow both fragile and aggressive approach, drawing us in and pushing us away at the same time.

Overall, Khedoori works with mystery, with a magical and dramatic remove, furthering her own enigma with every brush stroke.

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