Installation view, Toba Khedoori at David Zwirner, 2012 (all images via

Well known for working on very large sheets of wax-coated paper for the past twenty years, Toba Khedoori’s recent easel-sized oil painting will come as a surprise. In fact, the largest painting in her recent exhibition was around four-and-a-half feet by three feet, which is hardly monumental. To give you an idea of how much she has downsized for this exhibition, a work on paper in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, dating from 1997, is seven-and-a-half feet by nearly ten feet. And the MoMA drawing is small for Khedoori, who first gained national and international attention for works on paper that are twenty or more feet in width.

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“The mundane confronts the epic” is how Leah Ollman, in a September 2006 Los Angeles Times review described Khedoori’s signature staging of a familiar thing in a large, open space (or empty abstract field): “Khedoori orchestrates tension between affront and invitation, barrier and window.”

Toba Khedoori, “Untitled” (black river) (2011–12), oil on linen, 37 1/2 x 47 3/4 inches

However, it seems to me that in downsizing her work, the artist lost an important tension, which is the space that is neither here nor there but nevertheless served as a site for her mundane things: a fireplace; a fenced enclosure; rows and rows of auditorium seats. The vast (and possibly cosmic) space enabled an ordinary wooden chair and table, for example, to gain a veneer of abjectness.  Plainness and repetition became heightened states.

In the large works that gained her attention — she won a MacArthur Prize (or “Genius” award) in 2002 — Khedoori made clear nods to process (the wax-coated paper picked up hair, dust, lint, and staples in her studio), the commonplace (Ed Ruscha), exactitude (Vija Celmins), New Image (Robert Moskowitz) and Minimalism (Agnes Martin).  In an age of signs and semiotics, writers feel empowered to tap an artist’s smallest gesture for vast reservoirs of meaning. Stark and allusive, Khedoori’s work was a deconstructionist’s wet dream.

Toba Khedoori, “Untitled” (rope 2) (2011), oil on linen, 27 1/4 x 23 3/8 inches

So what happened?  Why was I dissatisfied when I left David Zwirner’s pristine industrial cavern?

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One problem is that Khedoori knows how to make a smart picture, but she doesn’t have any real idea about her subject matter. At this point — after two decades of exhibiting — it would seem that she doesn’t feel the need to deal with this problem. And yet, I keep returning to this question: Is Khedoori’s lack of a subject overlooked because, as Jerry Saltz pointed out back in 1999 (and he wasn’t being in any way critical), “ her family is originally from Iraq. Her cultural heritage includes the Persian miniature, fine of line and exquisite of detail” (Village Voice, July 6, 1999). Has Khedoori gotten a free pass?

This is what I saw in Zwirner’s space — bland, uptight paintings (each of them had a white border around the black-and-white image) of barren mountain ranges (are we supposed to think Afghanistan?), unspooling rivers, lattices of trees, and various images of rope crisscrossed or hanging from the painting’s top edge. The paintings seemed like Vija Celmins lite, coasting smoothly along on skillful illustration rather than making something through drawing or painting (countless decisions).

Toba Khedoori, “Untitled” (mountains 1) (2010–11), oil on linen, 27 1/2 x 41 1/8 inches

Khedoori’s latest paintings come across as disengaged, but not in any way that is meaningful. Affectation has replaced potential significance. I can’t help but wonder if the artist’s decision to downsize was market driven. While critics have suggested that Khedoori’s work is emotionally reserved, I would advance that it is withholding to the point of parsimoniousness.  She elicits the viewers’ sympathy even as she expresses a cold disdain for them.

Toba Khedoori continues at David Zwirner (525 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 27.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...