“Fake it till you make it” is a familiar slogan in 12-step programs, as is “Bring the feet, the mind will follow.” Go through the motions, the mottos suggest, and who knows, maybe spiritual enlightenment will sneak up on you.
This choice bit of wisdom came to mind at “The Devil’s Wall,” a show of new sculptures and works on paper by the London artist Idris Khan (b. 1978), whose father hails from Pakistan, and whose artworks, increasingly, take up what might be called Islamic religious themes.
Khan shows at Victoria Miro in London as well as with Yvon Lambert, and is celebrated for his lovely, large-scale photographs, soft-focus palimpsests of many similar images all combined together into one, such as the pages of a musical score or, as in the artist’s degree show in 2004, photographs of water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Khan’s method turns out to be exactly this 12-step sort of happy accident, in which a rote scheme produces transcendent (or at least evocative) results. In the case of the Bechers, a literal blurring of lucid Minimalist vision produces a melodrama of inchoate feeling.
In his new exhibition at Lambert, Khan turns specifically to Islam and the faith’s inimitable mantra, “God is great.” This phrase is repeated in dense drawings of nova-like mandalas, made by innumerable rubberstamp impressions of “God is great” on elegant paper (£6,000); and on three fountain-sized glossy-black torus sculptures (£100,000), where “God is great” is sandblasted into the surface in both English and Arabic, as if the words are pouring from the form’s outer edge down into the falling central void.
The imagery suggests nothing more than the fierce physical force of a black hole -- metaphorically speaking, of course. But standing at the lip of these dark vortexes, the vague religious sentiment, however abstract in the art gallery context, can be felt to edge all too easily into real feeling, real belief, an illustration, perhaps, of its most natural functioning in the human world.
Idris Khan, “The Devil’s Wall,” Apr. 13-May 14, 2011, at Yvon Lambert, 550 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.