“Avish Khebrehzadeh”

At Conner Contemporary Art to Oct. 5

Even for works on paper, Avish Khebrehzadeh’s drawings are thin, frail things. One Summer Outing, the focal point of the artist’s current show at Conner Contemporary Art, is so indistinctly and timidly drawn that its image at first barely registers, and the entire piece appears so immaterial that a strong gust of air conditioning would cause it to flutter out of the room. Five sagging sheets of vellum have been joined to form a screen that, at roughly 7-and-a-half-by-19 feet, covers the main wall of the gallery; on them, a boating scene vaguely recalling a summertime idyll by Cassatt or Renoir is drawn in thin contours and colored with puckered stains of olive oil and shellac. The marks seem to shrink from the eye, their small size and lack of heft completely out of keeping with the scale of the piece.

If Khebrehzadeh is attempting to define a world through drawing, it’s for an audience that seems to regard such potent, godlike acts with a sort of aesthetic atheism. And to judge by her numerous hesitations and provisional solutions, she feels the burden of this scrutiny all too keenly. Da Vinci didn’t have this problem: In his day, drawing was a way to gain direct knowledge and, eventually, mastery of nature. Nor did Ingres, 350 years later: For him, drawing was the soul of painting, the be-all, end-all of artistry—heck, even color was an afterthought, an indulgence that only sissies got excited about. But then came modernity. The rigorous apprenticeships undertaken by the Old Masters haven’t been economically feasible for ages, and even if they were, why should anyone bother? After Duchamp, we know that execution need rise only to the level necessary to communicate the Idea, and no further.

In fact, Khebrehzadeh, who is Iranian-born and Italian-trained but currently lives in the District, has made her reputation with that most Idea-laden of mediums: the quiet, contemplative multimedia installation that must be experienced over long stretches of time. But her drawings and animated films, often evoking Iranian animal fables, have kept some distinguished company, winning the Lion d’Or at the 50th Venice Biennale and showing in the Freer Gallery of Art in 2003’s “The Hidden Half: Iranian Women Directors.” The part of her Conner show on view to the general public features one large installation, a short video, two drawings, and three framed cels taken from her animated work. (Two additional installations, at a private residence, may be seen by appointment only.) Common to all of these is a capacity to summon feelings associated with the struggle to reconstruct buried or obscure memories—not to mention a deeply troubled relationship to the activity of drawing.

The searchings and restatements attending the execution of each rowboat-traveling figure in One Summer Outing are all visible, suggesting some fairly rigorous self-examination. Spidery lines creep cautiously into faces without noses or mouths; eyes are signified by nervous, wavering dots spaced unnaturally far apart. Odd bits of detailed pattern—the lacy hem of a dress, an embroidered handbag—are rendered with little curlicues of graphite that float seemingly unattached to the objects they are meant to adorn, suggesting a series of doodles given free rein more than a sincere imitation of any decorative effect.

And then there’s the piece’s video component: a short animated film projected onto the scene in a continuous loop. In the first of the film’s two episodes, three minimally rendered swimmers float slowly in a circle. They are faceless, vague creatures without hands or feet, essentially stripes of yellow discoloration wearing swimsuits. As they circle, their bodies begin to overlap and waver. Khebrehzadeh draws each figure from the film on a separate semiopaque sheet of vellum; when these are sandwiched together in the animating process, they create the impression of a spectral, layered space of uncertain depth. In the second episode, a small child, two adults, and a dog slowly make their way from left to right. Accompanied by a recording of languorous piano music, the action stutters across the screen, recalling an old silent movie. The melody remains oddly separate from the events unfolding in the film, adding a certain subtle undercurrent of distant sadness but otherwise managing to avoid overt sentimentality.

Khebrehzadeh has more than once been compared favorably to Johannesburg, South Africa, artist William Kentridge, whose work was surveyed at the Hirshhorn three years ago. Both draw and animate, obviously. And yes, both deal with the nature of memory, but to markedly different ends. Kentridge addresses the revisions and removals that can occur in collective memory when a culture grapples with atrocities in its recent past—in this case, his homeland’s attempts to come to terms with apartheid. Nothing in Khebrehzadeh’s flickering pastorals recalls any nameable place or event or is quite so politically and publicly resonant; her pieces are as private and mysterious as a Redon. And whereas Kentridge makes his animations by making a single robust drawing in charcoal, then, frame by frame, filming a series of dramatic transformations and erasures, Khebrehzadeh seems to regard the whole process of placing stylus to paper as so trivial as to be almost a hindrance. Her affinity for and dedication to the materials and methods of drawing appear incredibly slight in comparison.

The Horse (2004), for example, relies on multiple sheets of overlapping vellum to give it presence. The animal standing in the center of the composition lacks feet, a mouth, and a nose, and is barely indicated by the artist. Nearby trees are indicated by simple vertical lines and by stripes of trademark yellow staining. Naturalism is hardly required to build a convincing pictorial world, of course, and Khebrehzadeh is obviously hoping to create something more totemic than realistic. But there’s a difference between making generalized signs for things and allowing a picture to remain slack and unresolved.

In marked contrast, the short live-action film Swimming Pool (2004) is a fully realized environment—one, it should be noted, that makes no use of drawing. Here reductiveness is beguiling rather than tentative: For a little over two-and-a-half minutes, we see the brilliant glint of the sun’s reflection in a swimming pool, forming an upside-down exclamation point of refracted light near the edge of the image. We hear the water slosh and gulp against an off-camera wall of the pool, a sound that is mixed with that of a slowly swimming body. As we watch, the color of the water shifts gradually through ranges of blues with subtle violet accents—until the reverie is interrupted by that heard-but-not-seen swimmer, who finally passes through the top third of the screen. The number of frames per second has been reduced in order to make the sequence appear like a rapid succession of static images, giving Swimming Pool the same hand-cranked quality as One Summer Outing. It’s a simple evocation, but a powerful one: All images, when we put them down for others to see, pass through the machinery of remembrance.

When Khebrehzadeh opens her work onto actual life in three dimensions, her deftness with effect and metaphor are evident. Her drawings, existing as skeletonized storyboards, remain problematic. Conner’s three framed cels make this plain: Taken out of their original context, each exhibits the same uninflected line, the same lack of investigation and investment, the same minimal, superfluous value distinctions. Merely fallout from Khebrehzadeh’s artistic process, these works function at best as memorabilia, though much less effectively than Swimming Pool. Receipts for camera equipment would have about as much aesthetic impact (possibly more) while serving the same purpose.

The issue is not Khebrehzadeh’s ability to draw—only the necessity for her to do so. She undoubtedly has a gift for generating moods that linger and gestate, creating works that seem to shift as our experience of them unfolds. And she is engaging in open-ended play with life in the past and present tenses—specifically, with the way the two mutually transform one another over and over again, never fully resolving into something static. But with every choice she makes, Khebrehzadeh seems to underscore her inability to achieve these ends through drawing. That’s less a historical condition than a personal one, and the artist needs to make a choice: Either take this vestigial appendage and give it some intensive physical therapy, or opt for immediate amputation.CP