Idris Khan, Beyond the Black (Wall Drawing), 2013, oil and gesso on wall, dimensions variable.

Idris Khan, Beyond the Black (Wall Drawing), 2013, oil and gesso on wall, dimensions variable.

Idris Khan

Idris Khan, Beyond the Black (Wall Drawing), 2013, oil and gesso on wall, dimensions variable.

This season, black is the new black. Despite—or, possibly, because of—its racial connotations, it’s been the noncolor of choice for an unusual number of recent London exhibitions, among them Indian modernist F. N. Souza’s black-on-black figurative paintings from 1965 at Grosvenor Gallery; Korean sculptor Meekyoung Shin’s “Untitled (Black Series),” 2013—comprising exquisite vases made of soap manipulated to mimic coal-colored ceramics—at Sumarria Lunn Gallery; and the late English filmmaker Derek Jarman’s assemblaged “Black Paintings” from the 1980s and early ’90s at Wilkinson. It was in this context that Londoner Idris Khan professed to go “Beyond the Black” with his latest work.

Nine large paintings (black gesso and oil-based ink on aluminum), four substantially sized works in oil-based relief ink on paper, and a site-specific wall drawing (all works 2013) had us puzzling over shadowy realms. In the painting Emptiness, a squarish splotch of rich, almost indeterminate darkness—does its blackness contain a hint of deep red?—hovers on a gray-black background. Elsewhere in the gallery, in other paintings and paper works, viewers encountered more amorphous forms (a furry circle, a flowery splotch with a vibrating center, a distended rhombus) drifting on rectangles of pale slate-gray. Khan’s dark meditations reference the 1960s “Black Paintings” of American Abstract Expressionists Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, and Mark Rothko. Allusions to Rothko were particularly evident: Khan’s shifting shapes imitate his alternating dark and light color-fields. Like Rothko, Khan has claimed Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy as an inspiration. But if this at first seemed nothing more than a simplistic rehash of Rothko’s mysticism, a closer examination of the inky forms revealed something unexpected lurking in their depths: words.

Khan’s “paintings” are, in fact, not exactly that. The floating, protean forms they feature are actually overlapping words that have been repeatedly stamped on with ink. The phrases are Khan’s musings on Nietzsche’s difficult Birth of Tragedy. The text—indistinguishable from a distance, though up close some letters become legible—merges meaning with mayhem, referencing philosophical notions of the Sublime, in which the Self is threatened by Otherness. In Nietzsche’s writing, Apollonian ideals of order and rationality are troubled by the Dionysian intoxication of revelry, magic, and chaos. Khan’s work reenacts this unsettling of boundaries: Words adopt hazy contours, morphing into semi-geometric structures, which in turn tumble into inky confusion as viewers approach them. In the paper work Creation of the Creator, force fields of energy radiate from a circular core. Throbbing, beckoning, the void threatens to engulf us.

Born in Birmingham, UK, of Pakistani and Welsh descent, Khan as a child had to recite the Koran in Arabic. Since he did not understand the words, it is the cadenced quality of the recital that he remembers. His early photographic work features overlapping horizontal lines (writing, musical notation) that echo Agnes Martin’s pen-and-ink conjuring. He employs similar formal tropes in his new work to evoke a tense affiliation between language, understanding, and identity. The wordy mural Beyond the Black (Wall Drawing)—the most impressive piece on view—resembles a huge, flattened leaf, a cross section of a tree trunk, or a huge, ink-splattered fingerprint. On confronting such a work, one wonders: Is the Self separable from its surroundings? The Sublime, as articulated in Western thought, shares much in common with Sufism—a mystical branch of Islam frowned on by many orthodox Muslims that speaks about the ecstatic fusion of God with His creation (often facilitated through music). As Khan’s letters bleed into one another, their boundaries blur, creating an illusion of dancing whorls: Beyond the Black simulates the repetitive, rhythmic chanting of prayers or the whirling of Sufi dervishes. Drawn into its reverberating spell, we are prompted to ask if the writing on the wall spells out Khan’s ambivalence toward official Islam.

Zehra Jumabhoy