Picasso portrayed himself as a harlequin, Rembrandt as Paul the Apostle. Van Gogh provided an unabashed close-up of his bandaged head after he lost his ear (either by his own hand or in a duel with fellow painter Paul Gauguin).
While most artists concentrate on their faces or full-body images, Australian artist Toba Khedoori, whose eponymous exhibit is on display at the Pérez Art Museum Miami through Sept. 24, prefers to keep the focus elsewhere. Her self-portrait is the instrument of her creation — her right hand.
The first image visitors to the show see is that of the artist’s right hand positioned as if grasping an invisible pencil, her medium of choice. A corresponding drawing depicts her right palm, deeply lined and with ink-tinged fingertips. It is the hand of an artist who pays attention to detail and elevates everyday objects to a study worthy of exploration.
In Khedoori’s capable hands, a simple stick leaning against a wall joins its shadow to become an isosceles triangle. A blonde ladderback chair and table with the purity of lines found in Shaker furniture appear suspended in space, centered on an uncluttered sheet of paper that at roughly 13x15 1/2 feet would cover the better part of most walls in a modest home. Another large drawing features two doors opening out onto each other in the corner of a room. The doors, frames and molding are of a neutral light tan that appears at once mysterious and nonthreatening, with a perspective that gives the illusion that one door might be taller and narrower than the other.
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The exhibit at PAMM is an extension of the two-decade retrospective of the artist’s work that closed last month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, albeit with a slightly larger selection of works. Franklin Sirmans, who served as LACMA’s curator before joining PAMM as its director in 2015, organized the show with Christine Y. Kim, an associate curator at the Los Angeles museum.
In many ways, the Miami show is a mirror image of the West Coast presentation. It is also the first exhibition that Sirmans has curated for PAMM since becoming its director.
“In L.A., we went chronologically from 1994, which is the earliest work in the show, to 2015, which is the most recent,” Sirmans said. “Here, we’ve done the opposite. Here, we’re going from where she is right now in her life, which is something that is a lot smaller in terms of scale.”
Whether intentional or not, the reverse chronology echoes the artist’s approach to her work. An identical twin, Khedoori often plays with duality. Several of her works depict the positive and negative of the same image.
Rather than inundate the viewer with repeated references to the yin and yang of the same object, Sirmans and PAMM chief curator Tobias Ostrander avoid cliché by limiting their exploration of the artist’s twinned images to just two examples. One is that of a leafless tree standing upon its reflection. The other is the more widely recognized images of a fireplace, first done on a white background in 2005 and then on a black one a year later.
“Toba is a twin, an identical twin, which I think has a lot to do — and if she were here, I might feel small in saying that — but I think has a lot to do with the way she considers inversion, two-ness, ideas around creating an image that one might see as identical,” Sirmans said.
“She actually takes certain pieces where she looks at them from all different angles. In a couple of pieces — she wouldn’t let me show all of these kind of cliché-ridden examples — but there is one with two fireplaces. One is black; one is white. Another work where she did two mountains, and she just basically inverted the shading of the mountains, which if you think of it, the only way to do that is so skillful in itself. But this play on two-ness is throughout her work.”
Khedoori’s first “solo” exhibition took place with her twin sister, the sculptor Rachel Khedoori, at the David Zwirner gallery in New York in 1994. “She literally identified herself to the world as an artist as part of a unit,” Sirmans said. She has since gone solo, with her work standing in its own right. Her work has universal appeal, often minimal despite a frequently large-scale presentation. Major museums, including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, include her works in their permanent collections. In 2002, she received a MacArthur Foundation Grant.
Another aspect hard-wired into her chemistry is her identity as an Iraqi Jew. Although born in Sydney, Australia, in 1964, Khedoori’s Iraqi heritage comes through in her work, at times ever so subtly. In a magnificent painting of a mosaic floor, each tile is meticulously rendered to include each individual chip or flaw. The roughly 2x3-foot oil painting is reminiscent of Persian miniatures, but played out on a much larger expanse.
Another work, “Untitled (clouds),” 2005, darkly billows forth on paper that spans more than 10 feet by 6 feet. Some have likened its imagery to the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Or, perhaps it is the plume from an oil fire in the Persian Gulf or the aftermath of a bombing raid in Iraq.
There is no such ambiguity with “Untitled (explosion)” 2011 — a roughly 3x4-foot graphite on paper drawing was made in the last year of the Iraq War and represents a found image of a bombing in Iraq.
Rather than bleat about her biography, Khedoori has demonstrated restraint from the start, avoiding the fate of being pigeon-holed as an artist freighted with the baggage of her culture. She and her sister arrived in California from their native Australia in the 1980s to study art at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, but Khedoori rejected the notion of linking her work to her ancestral homeland.
“Thinking about an international conversation in the mid-’90s, there was often a desire to see identity, to see a reference point to global positioning in a way,” Sirmans said. “She was really in denial of it.” Khedoori rejected behind lumped with other artists with foreign-sounding last names, despite the disparate nature of their work. “The sound of their names grouped them together,” Sirmans said. “And they did nothing alike, the work is totally different.”
Her position stood in sharp contrast to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which focused on sociopolitical ills centered on race and nationality. Two years later, Toba was one of the youngest artists to participate in a biennial that appeared to be a backlash to the politically laden show of 1993.
Alhough Khedoori’s Miami retrospective features only 28 works, it both reveals her genius and serves as a psychological essay, touching on bleakness and offering hope. Two images particularly capture this yin and yang nature of life: “Untitled (hole),” 2013, and “Untitled (rooms),” 2001.
In the first work, it remains unclear whether the all-embracing darkness is a sign of bleakness or represents a hidden space of safety during gestation. However, the bright light above translates to hope and rebirth. Similarly, the image of the rooms, with its overlapping entryways, can be viewed as the maze of life one must navigate, forever advancing toward the light.
Sirmans sees these works as the artist’s evolution as a person. “She also had two kids in the process,” he said. “There’s a lot of evolution there.”
If you go
What: Toba Khedoori, a two-decade retrospective of the renowned Australian artist whose realistic minimalist work was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation Grant.
Where: The Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Boulevard
When: Through September 24
▪ “Hands I and II,” (2015): The artist’s self-portrait of her drawing hand
▪ “Tile,” (2014): A sun-drenched mosaic reminiscent of Persian miniatures
▪ “Mountains” (2011-12): An aerial view of a mountain range in Afghanistan that takes on an abstract quality the closer you advance to the image
▪ “Black Fireplace and White Fireplace” (2006 and 2005, respectively): Reverse doppelgänger images that play with the duality of life through positive and negative portraits of a fireplace
▪ “Rooms” (2001): A glimpse into the interior, an architectural metaphor