The Curious Case of Khan and Keyes.
Admittedly it sounds like a law firm: Khan and Keys, perhaps a firm specializing in intellectual property. But Idris Khan and Doug Keyes are both photographers, fine artists practicing their craft in a landscape of financial inequities, ephemeral reputations and absurdly subjective barometers of value and success. And as is so often the case in this murky world, scale and context often drown out resonant artistic investigation.
Both Khan and Keyes harness a unique aspect of the photographic medium: the multiple exposure. Whether meticulously controlled or haphazardly accidental, the multiple exposure carries rich metaphoric potential. It’s far from a technical innovation, but in the hands of a gifted artist, this eccentricity of medium can become the template for a career trajectory. Repeatable paradigms are after all a gallerist’s marketing goldmine. The story of these two artists and their overlapping artistic paradigms is repeated year after year. But the lessons are seldom learned and when they are learned, they seem to be immediately forgotten. Quality is not always the most heralded or even the most visible. Cream doesn’t always rise to the top.
I stumbled upon the work of Doug Keyes about 15 years ago, likely at an AIPAD Photography fair. The series I encountered was titled Collective Memory. Keyes creates a photographic image of a book by making multiple exposures, one for each page of a book, creating a single image visually fusing its contents. Furthermore, Keyes prints the resulting image in the exact size of the book observed. The books/prints, thus manipulated, range in subject from novels, encyclopedia and scientific texts. But the subset that really spoke to me was of artist’s monographs. The books include Damien Hirst, Chuck Close, Ed Ruscha, Hilla and Bernd Becher and Karl Blosfeldt, all deftly deconstructed and reassembled through Keyes’ graceful paradigm.
Keyes creates poetic images that are intellectually rigorous. He obviously is an artist knowledgeable of the craft of photography. The results yield an image that contains an artist’s career trajectory fused into a single hagiographic ghost. The prints hold an art historical nod that is both reverential and remarkably transgressive.
About 7 years later I encountered the art of another young artist named Idris Khan working extremely similar territory. The venue this time was the Armory Fair in NYC. The first work of Khan’s I witnessed was a piece that fused sheet music through multiple exposure into an identical fog of notes. Most of these efforts collect one type of composition by one composer like Preludes by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Unlike Keyes’ Collective Memory, Khan’s prints were bombastically large. The intellectual effect though was, it seemed to me at the time, remarkably consistent. I enjoyed seeing the variation on music, made note of the name and more than anything remembered Keyes fondly and the authenticity of his paradigm.
Final Cross fade to 2012: A couple of months ago I received a FaceBuch post in my news feed from Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. It was a multiple exposure image, which fused all 30 portraits by Nicholas Nixon of the Brown Sisters*. It was an Idris Khan. In a bit of a knee jerk reaction, I responded with a couple of snarky comments calling the work derivative and extolling the work of Doug Keyes as exemplary and more authentic to the paradigm both artists had chosen. I stand by the content but a mini rant in a facebook post seems a tad infantile and beneath the serious nature of the topic at hand. And thus was born this essay.
Since Fraenkel’s post I’ve investigated Idris Kahn’s career. Kahn’s reputation over the last 7 years has grown exponentially to where he is now represented by Sean Kelly Gallery in NYC, Victoria Miro in London, Yvonne Lambert in Paris and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. For anyone unfamiliar with the art world, these are top-tier galleries who represent significant artists, many of whom have entered the canon of art history. Khan’s work has diversified greatly in these years as well. It now includes sandblasted concrete and aluminum as well as his continued use of photography’s multiple exposure capabilities. Press releases about his work extol appropriation and deconstruction in art speak so opaque as to be unintelligible.
In my mind Keyes is the better artist for several reasons. Keyes’ subject is books and the dissemination of both images and ideas. As any passionate collector or fine art aficionado can tell you, images and ideas do run together and create a texture of multiple exposure memories. The images work as manifestations of accrued knowledge. The books, as seen through Keyes’ paradigm, reveal and veil with equal force and effect.
Khan’s work, while undeniably visually arresting, has to be placed in the hip-hop culture of sampling. The subject is neither the work sampled nor the original intent of the sampled artist. Nor, for that matter, is it the history of art and/or photography. The subject is simply the medium of sampling. Ultimately, the gee-whiz moment of discovery falls flat without the resonant underpinning of choice, theme and intent. Investigations of this paradigm can of course be transformative. When this happens with Kahn, it occurs almost by accident. The best example is Kahn’s cribbing of Karl Blosfeldt’s botanicals. The multiple overlays of Blosfeldt’s centered stems and flowers create a near perfect rendition of a female pudendum. Nature’s reproductive manifestations morph into a corporeal version.
Keyes has tackled Blosfledt as well but the sexual energy of the resulting image is chaste in comparison. The diptych format of the book pages transforms the tome and less the images contained therein. Keyes’ choice of books is nothing if not eclectic. The range is wide and while it includes several art monographs, it’s hardly limited to that. Restricting that field of vision to art monographs would result in a navel gazing preciousness that Keyes has excellently avoided. Khan’s choices seem forced. They’re also in keeping with an art world that wants nothing more than to be self-congratulatory. “I own a Cy Twombly and an Idris Khan which cribs Twombly’s mark marking.”
Keyes’ scale is in keeping with his subject matter. As I stated, the prints are “Actual Size” and thus index the body that holds and reads them. Khan’s scale doesn’t seem to have a purpose or urgency. While the scale of an Andreas Gursky is essential to not only its impact but also its content, Khan’s choice of scale bears no reference to its appropriated source material. It’s scale for scale’s sake. The benefit of this however is that it clearly defines itself as conceptual contemporary fine art and not photography.
Lastly, Collective Memory, as a series, works as a portrait of the artist. Whether these books are in Keyes’ personal collection or not isn’t even relevant. By choosing them, he has invited us in and, for more than a decade, presented his character through the avatar of his library. He makes us ponder how our favorite books would look if put through the rigors of his technique. Khan, to date, has revealed more calculation than character.
There’s about ten years between Doug Keyes and Idris Khan. Khan is the younger of the two.
Khan lives and works in London. Keyes resides in Seattle, Washington. While Khan is represented by the aforementioned deep-pocketed galleries, Keyes is represented by Gail Gibson in Seattle and Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn, both reputable galleries to be sure, however both more modest in scale, reach and means. Khan has also obviously entered the world of outsourced fabrication (including digital means,) while Keyes maintains an endeavor wholly organic and personal. Any of these and other factors could be responsible for the fact that Khan is garnering more attention on the fine art landscape.
My greatest issue when I think about these two artists and the marketplace that supports them is the unfortunate truth that intelligent whispers are almost always drowned out by bombastic shouts. The intimacy of Keyes’ work is its greatest strength and perhaps also its Achilles heel. My lament also emanates from the fact that large and influential galleries might be best positioned to nurture talent like Keyes, build sophistication and connoisseurship in a collector base and champion restrained intelligent work. But the financial models almost exclude this potential from the start. Bigger galleries mean bigger overheads, which require bigger ticket items to meet the monthly nuts. Fold in the necessity to get noticed in the mall-like atmospheres of fairs and the game is over. This may be most true in the realm of Photography.
Photography’s role as a fine art medium still lives with the weight of playing catch up. To my dismay, scale (of both art work and gallery space) continues to index importance in some circles. In this same context, scale almost always is in direct corollary to economics. Very quickly people start talking about the art of the deal and not the art of the art. My ultimate cautionary recommendation is twofold: scour high, mid level and emerging galleries constantly and never equate gallery reputation with an immediate sense of quality. Originality is often suspect in a trajectory of creative experimentation so build a hierarchy based on aesthetic resonance not price tags. And lastly, economic success isn’t always the reward for aesthetic accomplishment. Okay that’s three.
–Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, March 1st, 2013
*Nicholas Nixon‘s work is stunning. The Brown Sisters is a project of 36 years of annual portraits Nixon has taken with a large format camera of four sisters (one, Bebe, is his wife) in New England. The project was started in 1975 when the sisters ranged in age from 15 to 25. I saw the series at its 25-year anniversary when it was shown at MoMA in NYC. The series now numbers 36 annual portraits. The intimacy of the sisters as they age is both emotionally abstract and a highly personal. Seeing the prints in person is transcendent.