Lost in Language
Idris Khan’s contradictory worlds

Whether it’s the gasometers by Bernd and Hilla Becher, stamp poems, or Turner’s sea pieces—everything in the work of the London-based artist Idris Khan is a ghostly depiction. Eddy Frankel talked to him about identity, doubt, and painting.
For most of the year, urban England is a damp, miserable, gray expanse. It’s a gloomy, often desolate country—and few contemporary British artists reflect that feeling in their work quite as strongly as Idris Khan. Spectral industrial shapes, illegible ramblings, ghostly human figures, all of these are repeated endlessly in Khan’s somber, and often very beautiful, paintings and pictures. It not only makes sense that Khan’s work is made in England, it’s possible that it could only have been created here.

But sometimes, England can be beautiful. When the sun shines on London’s streets, few cities are as picturesque. It’s on one of these all-too-rare sun-soaked days that I find Khan standing outside his Stoke Newington studio, basking in the spring warmth with a handful of assistants. He bounds up to me, places a hand on my shoulder, and shows me around the space he shares with his wife, the artist Annie Morris. Not only is Khan perfectly and schoolboyishly polite, he’s also energetic and positively joyful. It’s an odd dichotomy—you expect him to be quiet and serious like his work, just like you expect England to be gray and miserable. But here I am, sitting talking about football in the glorious sunshine with one of the loveliest, cheeriest artists you could hope to meet.

It might seem a simplistic series of contrasts —but it’s one that helps to sum Khan up nicely. He is an artist of conflict and contradiction, torn between his own light and dark, and most of all between his confidence and shyness. The more time you spend with him, the more you realize that he’s an unsettled, uncertain individual, defined in both his work and in his life by contrast.

Khan is from the industrial town of Walsall on the outskirts of Birmingham, not that you can tell from his accent, which lacks any discernible regional ticks in favor of a perfect, gentle Received Pronunciation. His mother was a Welsh nurse, while his father was a surgeon of Pakistani origin. “It was one of the first mixed-race marriages in my mother’s small village,” Khan says as he sits forward on a deep black leather armchvair in one of the bright, whitewashed rooms of his studio, reminiscing about a childhood spent in the industrial midlands of the country. “It was when a lot of Muslims were moving to the area, there was a real influx. My father was very liberal, but he did want us to practice Islam.” Young Idris would therefore have to straddle two worlds—polite, normal British society, and the relatively recent community of immigrant Muslims. “I never really knew what I was saying in those prayers, I was just reciting them. There was part of me that was always lost in language, trying to understand both cultures.” Khan was stuck between worlds, at a time when racial tensions were still relatively palpable. “I always felt awkward in the mosque. Instead of being the only Asian kid in school, you’d be the only white kid in the mosque.” And so we find the first of many contrasts that define Khan.

His Muslim upbringing has of course influenced his work as an artist—most clearly in his Quran images. But you see it elsewhere: in the philosophical, mystical stamp paintings inspired by Sufism, in the calligraphy-emblazoned sculptures, and most of all in the pure repetitive ritualism of his photographic works. “If I think about some of the work I do, it has that repetitive quality of something like daily rituals—returning to something five times a day, repeating prayers.” It’s not just the works themselves that have that quality, Khan’s methodology is itself hugely ritualistic. “I don’t think I’m an obsessive-compulsive person, I don’t have that in daily life; I have it in the studio. I try to keep it separate. I think I’d be nuts if I was like that. I get it out in the art. I become a slight psycho when I’m making the works, I’m different to be around when I’m making a show.” Then Khan goes through a process of purification. “When I finish a body of work, the studio gets cleansed and everything’s gone so that I have blank walls. I have to clean myself before starting something else.” But does he ever dislike the person he has to be in order to create the works? He pauses for a while before replying. “No, because I think then I’d stop making art, so I can’t ever lose that.”

But an even greater conflict at play in Khan’s life is a simpler, aesthetic one—a fight between photography and painting. Best known for his ghostly layered photographic images, like the gas holder images based on the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, two years ago Khan held his first exhibition of paintings at Victoria Miro Gallery in London. Created with stamps and ink, the works feature Khan’s own writings as well as quotes from various philosophical and mystical sources, blotted endlessly on a canvas, creating giant, shimmering, illegible forms. The works were inspired by some of Khan’s most traumatic memories. “They started because I lost my mother and we lost a baby in a year, and I needed a way to be physical with a work. So I’d come in here and write these horrible things, and it became like therapy. I’d stamp away all these thoughts.” Khan is at his most uncertain when talking about these works. He tells me that he sees them more as drawings than paintings, but then changes his mind and admits that actual-ly, yes, they probably are paintings. “The jump from a photograph to a painting…,” he says before pausing, and then saying to himself more than to me: “It’s such a hard thing to say. They are paintings, they are, you’re okavy to say that.” It’s an understandable problem. Khan’s work has dipped its toe into so many fields—from photography to philosophy, musical notation to sculpture —that he must struggle to separate out the strands.

Part of his reluctance to admit that he might have accidentally become a painter may stem from a fear of criticism. He leads me through his studio, showing me a new series he’s working on. Big black boards hang on the walls, covered in thick, swirling clouds of white paint. They’re beautiful, abstract paintings, totally unlike anything he has done before. As you approach, you realize that the aggressive marks are in fact words—this is Khan’s own poetry, scraped across a surface to the point of illegibility. But he can’t leave them as paintings. Instead, he takes hundreds of pictures of each work as he’s creating them, and stitches the images together to make a photographic print that’s even more abstract than the originals. Pointing at the paintings, he says, “If I hang that in a gallery, you’re questioning the surface, the oil, the history of it and all the references you get from actually looking at a painting.” He gesticulates at a particularly stark canvas. “I don’t want that baggage, it’s not about that for me, that’s why I wouldn’t hang these as paintings.” But what actually is the baggage of a painting? “If I do a series of white paintings, I’m automatically seen as an artist whose trying to be like, let’s say, Robert Ryman. So you’re immediately compared to that. Whereas if I make a white painting and I photograph that painting and I create a composition, suddenly I feel like it’s mine.” I ask him if he feels like he’s just being defensive about it, scared of criticism. “I honestly don’t think they’re good enough.” Silence fills the room. “I’ve got to stop thinking like that, and the moment I do, I’ll be able to hang them.”

From there, Idris leads me through to a room where a handful of assistants are busy working on a new series of stamp paintings—similar to his Deutsche Bank Birmingham commission A River Runs Happy (2014). But there is no color in these works, just glossy white paint on plain white canvas. The words here, this time all Khan’s own, are impossible to read, rendering the paintings completely abstract. “With the black paintings you could really see the shape straight away, and these are something you have to be drawn into. It’s intense to look at something like this. It’s a different feel, physically.” He’s right. They glimmer in the studio light, forcing you closer—but it doesn’t help, the words remain illegible. “I love having that secretive quality of what’s in the painting, because then it’s actually abstract. People want to know the words. I don’t like giving it away. People see the shape, they see the painting and they love it, then they hear the words and they’re put off by it. Do you know what I mean? That’s my world.” It’s not said aggressively, just with defiance. But would he ever publish his writings? “I think I would, yes, eventually. I love artists who do that.” See? An artist of contradictions and contrasts. But maybe, despite the tension, these battles that he’s waging with himself are what make him so special.