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Idris Khan
Repeat After Me
Milwaukee Art Museum

by Saul Ostrow, April 28, 2024


Idris Khan (British, b. 1978), The Seasons Turn, 2021
Oil on mounted paper. 28 panels, each: 25 1/2 × 21 1/2 inches

Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly

If we take Idris Khan’s work as a whole, which is what a mid-career review offers us, we can observe how he moves back and forth between the critical and the subjective, the anecdotal and the formal. Even the title of this exhibition Repeat After Me, which in the press release we are told references his father teaching him the ritual movements that accompany Muslim prayer, may reference this polarity — for it may be an analogy for the dilemma of the young artist bound by the weight of historical precedent. Both interpretations carry with them a sense of entropy and burden-some-ness if not fatigue, ergo it implies that for Khan art risks becoming a meaningless ritual of rehearsed moves. 

Fundamentally, Khan's works are rooted in the practices of appropriation, and quotation, in which the work in question is openly derivative from another. This was a defining practice of Post-Modernism. In all these practices, the artist takes the existing visual and textual element of an artwork, or artist’s style and transforms it through conceptual or aesthetic manipulation into something self-reflectively insightful. Khan who graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 2004, is part of the post-Post-Modern generation who were brought up on these strategies and took them to be the normative. For his generation, the blurring of the boundaries between originality and appropriation was the way they could resist the idea that an artwork has a singular unique authorial intention. Instead, they sought to engage in an open-ended process of “reading and re-reading” the historical and contemporary forces brought to bear on the artist and their work. 

Given his use of appropriation, Khan’s early works exist in dialogue not only with the history of art, but diverse cultural sources. Along with these references, his works employ analogies in a discursive manner as a means of preserving his subjects, which makes his work inherently intertextual. With each work, Khan seeks to reinterpret and exploit his sources’ aesthetic and anecdotal implications while creating a sense of endless references, associations, and histories. As one moves through the galleries the competing forces of the critical and the subjective, the anecdotal and the formal become a compass for navigating Khan’s work. In the first few galleries, which represent his earliest photo-works, Khan uses both historical and contemporary artworks, texts, and musical scores to challenge both the notion of the “original” as well as that of originality. In these works, he layers digital photographic reproductions of his source materials. The transformation and obfuscation of the original are central to Khan’s analogous themes of history, memory, and the metaphysical collapse of time, which are themes often anecdotally associated with these works. 

In the earliest piece in the exhibition, Khan superimposes all of the images of botanical specimens photographed by Karl Blossfeldt to create the image of a singular, expressionist-like bouquet. These practices of appropriation and reproduction seemingly were a way for the young artist to use the past in a sedimentary way to demonstrate how the past informs the present and in turn how the present transforms the past. These early works are both oedipal and homage, as Khan grapples with the weight of historical precedent while simultaneously paying tribute to his artistic lineage. This tension between the critical and the subjective, the anecdotal and the formal challenges the notion of fixed meaning and art’s linear progression of time. In this Khan’s works reflect the Post-Modernist view that meaning is inherently unstable and multivalent. 


Idris Khan (British, b. 1978), Bicycle Wheel...after Duchamp, 2014.
Chromogenic print. 75 3/4 × 98 3/8 inches

Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly. © Idris Khan


Idris Khan (British, b. 1978), every...Bernd & Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gasholder, 2004

Chromogenic print. 80 × 65 inches

Courtesy of the Artist and Sean Kelly. © Idris Khan

Khan’s use of stamped texts and musical notations, which become obscured by their layering, suggests that the work of art is a means of silencing language by placing it “under erasure.” Over and over again in one work after another the legibility of these codes is undermined, highlighting the tension between language as a means of communication and its nature as both an abstraction and a mode of representation. This is most apparent in those works in which Khan both visually and conceptually incorporates musical scores. The ghostly presence of the musical notations becomes a metaphor for the ephemeral and experiential nature of his practice.


His layered images of surfaces, textures, gestures, and text often create a sense of illusion — a depth of materiality that is not really there. This trompe l’oeil, combined with digital reproduction, positions his work within the realm of the simulacrum — a representation that becomes indistinguishable from its referent, yet remains a substance-less replica. Subsequently, Khan’s mediated and re-meditated approach imbues these works with a sense of faux authenticity, while elsewhere he engages in the process of erasure, in which traces of previous marks and layers are photographically preserved and spliced together. In this series of works, Khan photographically preserves the traces of the erasures of marks on a chalkboard, paying homage to the palimpsest quality found in Twombly’s work. In these works, the image functions as a signifier of the fictitious nature of photography, rather than as an indexical representation of events. The subject in such works, because they are mere constructs, is accessed through analogy, anecdote, and association, rather than what is depicted or experienced. So, while Khan’s works are often accompanied by contextual information and references, the stories and anecdotes are not essential to the works themselves. In his more recent works, which increasingly come to depend on aesthetic and experiential qualities. he seeks to transcend such exposition.


During the COVID-19 years, Khan’s artistic practice underwent a notable shift in both theme, process, and materiality. Despite his continued referencing and recontextualization of other artists’ work, his recent works have taken on a more sensual aesthetic, with the visual and material qualities of the pieces becoming increasingly prominent. These works based on the color palettes of various masterpieces no longer require the viewer to engage in complex intertextual references or the piecing together fragmented information. Rather than reproducing or obliterating his referents, in these works, Khan has opted to deconstruct them, rather than overlaying this information to form a composite image, which I imagine would produce a general gray tone. These works are instead presented as an arrangement of individually framed, watercolor paintings of differing sizes, their relation to the original being the color palette. By engaging with the interplay between the sensual and the conceptual, and between referentiality and originality Khan appears to have broken out of the Post-Modern to engage the real. These works resist the appeal of reproduction and the simulacrum yet, at their core is Khn’s commitment to exploring the spectrum of possibilities that lie between history and innovation.

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