“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” said art critic Walter Pater, and of no work is this truer than that of Idris Khan. Khan’s most celebrated works are overlayed renditions of musical scores by Chopin and Beethoven and transcriptions from the Qur’an. But a new stable of works (£10,000-£60,000) to be shown at London’s Victoria Miro Mayfair gallery from May 1-June 6 concentrates on a new topic altogether – conflict.
The titles of the works – A Field of Dust, Disappearing Lines, Conflicting Lines – are the only hints, however, that these apparently calm and mesmerising pictures are drawn from the “inescapable” barrage of horrific media images emanating from the Middle East and elsewhere. One work, AGrey Bucket (second picture) was inspired, says Khan, by a photograph of a man sitting beside a bucket in the immediate aftermath of a bomb explosion. “I wanted to focus on the one thing in a picture that really affects you as you look at it – what Roland Barthes called ‘punctum’ – and in this case it was that bucket, covered in a thick coat of grey dust.”
True to his other works, the words in these pictures have been overscored so many times it is impossible to read them. They are mantras, composed by the artist and repeated again and again as if in an act of homage or absolution – but then obscured through over repetition, so we will never know exactly what they are.
Although Khan stopped practicing Islam at the age of 14, he remains fascinated by the rituals and devotion of his Pakistani father’s faith and says it underscores the repetitive and obsessive production processes behind his works. “My art uses words but it is not Word Art,” he insists.
What is new, however, is the medium of these latest pictures. Instead of the charcoal Khan has favoured for many years, in his creation of pictures as delicate and ephemeral as smoke, he has turned to using the thick impasto of oil crayons. Yet even these heavy, cloying, sticky materials are lent a delicacy by dint of Khan’s treatment.
At every stage of creation, Khan takes photographs and then fuses all the images together to create dense palimpsests that draw you in through their many layers. A particularly hypnotic work is Conflicting Lines; tiny stipples and squiggles float like astral dust in a sea of black, denoting the frailty of the human condition – and oblivion beyond.
For more art shows, see Calder and Calatrava at Dominique Levy.