What is burning in Toba Khedoori's fireplace?
In 2005, the L.A.-based artist made a painting of a domestic hearth ablaze, the life-size image rendered at viewer eye-level on an immense field of waxy white paper pieced together from two smaller sheets. (Overall, it's more than 11 feet tall and 16 feet wide.) A year later, she reproduced the same image for a second giant painting on paper, this time embedded in a surrounding field of dense black pigment mixed with wax.
Both works turn up midway through an absorbing 20-year-plus survey of Khedoori's work newly opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Former LACMA curator Franklin Sirmans, now director of Pérez Art Museum Miami, organized the show with LACMA's Christine Y. Kim. Khedoori's exquisitely drawn works are known for the excruciating care she takes in their rendering, so it's a puzzlement that the material going up in smoke in the fireplace is hard to identify.
Those are not logs. The fuel might be books, given some vaguely boxy shapes, or maybe wadded up documents. Cut-up kindling?
Or — who knows — maybe a sheaf of drawings?
Whatever the case, the cozy warmth of hearth and home requires incineration, a transfer of energy in which something is lost and something gained. Much of Khedoori's work seems a concentrated meditation on similar dichotomies. A fire in the fireplace is something one stares into for the purpose of getting lost — and finding refreshment in the process.
Khedoori, born in Sydney, Australia, in 1964, burst onto the scene in 1995 with a strikingly ambitious solo show in Los Angeles at Regen Projects. (She had finished her master's degree at UCLA the year before.) The works cross several boundaries: Each is simultaneously a drawing, a painting and an installation. Drawings on thick sheets of paper, they are made at the mural-scale of paintings (using oil paint) but are unframed, brushed with wax and stapled to the wall in a manner that emphasizes them as physical objects.
They're also a kind of wallpaper. Khedoori obliquely summons a format of traditionally feminine domesticity. It merges with a traditionally masculine institutional structure, established long ago by big Abstract Expressionist paintings.
Khedoori's images likewise hew toward the architectural — doors, windows, theater seats, brick walls, railings, hallways, a cutaway of an abandoned house. Doors lead to empty rooms, seats are unfilled and windows are blackened and partly or completely covered with shades. A square pen formed by chain-link fencing is a vacant enclosure with a closed gate, as if something escaped. And most of the paper is of course blank.
In one of the most poignant works, a walkway leads to a dead end, closed off by a railing. Its subject is the manmade path to a view. Your eye gets taken to a place from which there is little to see — only the expanse of milky whiteness in the wax-covered, 11-foot sheet of paper, plus the pathway itself.
During fabrication, that wax gathers dust, plus stray hairs (animal and human), a few paw prints (also animal and human), some errant brush marks and other minor debris. The grubby, soiled surface makes me think of the cigarette butts, coins and a key stuck in the skeins of paint of Jackson Pollock's ecstatic 1947 drip painting, "Full Fathom Five." A dynamic contrast is italicized between the scruffiness of the object and the pristine, painstaking and elegant style of acutely linear drawing.
Think of the contrast as one between a routine world and measured, even cerebral action within it.
Visually, one disarming result is an image that seems to float on top of the surface as well as within it, embalmed like a fly in amber. Perhaps that's why her elusive pictures are sometimes described as dream-like — at once there and not-there, close yet far away. Given the size, the dream becomes an epic whisper.
The LACMA show is modest in size — just 25 works from 22 years — installed chronologically in five rooms. There's a puzzling three-year gap from 2002 through 2004 (it roughly coincides with a five-year MacArthur Fellowship awarded to Khedoori in 2002), and then a four-year gap from 2007 through 2010. The artist was making work during these times, but the omission from the retrospective perhaps suggests some second-thoughts.
That kind of slow, ruminative deliberation is fully in keeping with the work's aesthetic. It is rare enough in our spectacle- and market-driven art world, where immediate return and short-term results often matter most.
In the exhibition, the two big, blazing-fireplace images are followed by the final room, which features a very different selection of work: seven conventional-size easel paintings in oil on linen. (They range from about 2 to 4 feet on a side.) Most were shown earlier this year in a large show at Regen Projects, Khedoori's first exhibition at the gallery in a decade. A mixed affair, it nonetheless revealed an artist working toward a new direction — and succeeding as often as not.
Emblematic is an untitled grid-painting, just over 3 feet square. The image looks like a thin net thrown over a white surface, its delicate, hair's-width lines appearing to be painted red, blue and black.
The grid is out of whack, though, as wobbly as the uncertain color. Many lines are not straight, many intersections don't form right angles and not all the warped squares are the same size. Using nothing but colored lines, Khedoori makes the flat grid pop into three dimensions, which is why it recalls a net. It's like an Amsler grid — the eye chart an ophthalmologist uses to determine loss of vision, the kind that obscures fine detail.
So as you scrutinize the fragile surface, the painting is quietly signaling trouble. That it's also lovely produces a tender effect. The painting become a gestural abstraction paradoxically constructed from linear geometry.
Elsewhere, something similar happens in a close-up view of tangled branches with lush, deep bluish-green leaves, where nature goes abstract (again in a Pollock sort of way), and another of the same subject but shown in winter and thus with barren branches. A third unfurls a tilted wall or floor of colored ceramic tiles, the two-dimensional patterned surface grid transformed into a fluid spatial expanse by an oblique cascade of watery white light.
Nothing rests easily in her work, its drama typically tamped down — even in a romantic, wall-size painting of billowing black clouds. They hang in the air, a pregnant pause, quietly setting a stage for something momentous to happen.
Khedoori starts with a primary paradox of art, in which an image is also an object. Playing with contradictions intrinsic to Modernist painting, she comes up with enchanting, unexpected hybrids.
Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through March 19; closed Wednesdays
Information: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org