Review of Idris Khan: Beyond the Black at Victoria Miro, London

Review of Idris Khan: Beyond the Black at Victoria Miro, London

The world according to Idris Khan is a dark place, where a monochrome veil shields the eye from the stark reality of the void. In this exhibition of new works, Khan grapples with the unintelligibility of language and bristling storms of black pigment to engage in a philosophical reflection on the possibility of transcendence.

This exhibition represents something of a departure for Khan, who is best known for his photographic works. These large paintings and their accompanying drawings are similar in atmospheric terms to his previous works, but differ in the very visceral sense of craft that the medium of painting invariably possesses. The paintings are made by applying black pigment mixed with slate dust and glue to the surface of the canvas, then sanding it down to a smooth surface. Although this process changes the texture, it does nothing to eradicate the trace of the artist’s hands, which retains a ghostly presence in the shimmering surface.

These paintings, brooding quietly on the immaculately lit walls of the gallery, demand simultaneous, contradictory responses from the viewer. Unlike the black paintings of Rothko, which draw you in to their inscrutable contemplative silence, Khan’s ask you to at once stand back and let it wash over you in a tidal wave and to be draw in ever closer to the eye of the storm. From a distance, the shapes that radiate out from the centre glow with spectral intensity, giving a sense of the sheer scale of these paintings. However, once you get up close, something of obsessive concern for repetition has survived in the move from photography to painting, which increasingly absorbs the viewer’s attention. The shapes in the middle of each picture, on closer inspection, turn out to be strings of words, repeatedly, defiantly stamped on the painting.

The sentences are Khan’s personal responses to his reading of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, which are rendered inhuman, abstract and mechanical by their being stamped rather than hand-written. The words are also so densely overlaid that it is only at the tail-ends that full words can be deciphered. It is as if Khan wants to say that language, a sovereign and trusted means of communication, ultimately fails when we are exploring the metaphysics of creativity. And that is Nietzsche’s, and by extension Khan’s, central theme here: the constant tussle between rationality and intoxication in the creative process, which is aptly illustrated by the chaos of the words and their quietness of their black background.

These are indeed murky, brooding, contemplative paintings, but there is a note of optimism in them: by simultaneously drawing us into and pushing us out of their darkness, they invite the possibility of moving beyond the black. Between the totality of repulsion and the detail of attraction, these paintings take us to a space in which the act of painting itself is the means by which we can transcend the unintelligibility of language, where painting creates a mood that explains everything in a way that mere words simply cannot.

Daniel Barnes

Idris Khan: Beyond the Black, 20 September unil 09 November, Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW.


1. Idris Khan, Peaceful Stillness, 2013. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery
2. Installation View, Victoria Miro Gallery, 2013. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery
3. Idris Khan, The Illusion of Reality, 2013. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery