Spotlight: Deborah Robinson on Idris Khan and Jean Painlevé

White Court (2001), Idris Khan.

White Court (2001), Idris Khan.

Deborah Robinson, Head of Exhibitions at The New Art Gallery Walsall discusses A World Within, a major survey exhibition of Birmingham-born artist Idris Khan, and is transported to a beautiful underwater world by the nature films of Jean Painlevé at Ikon Gallery.

It has been a great pleasure to work with Idris Khan on this major survey exhibition and I’m incredibly proud of the exhibition. It seems timely to celebrate and explore the richness and breadth of his practice and to inspire young people from our region and beyond.

Idris was born in Birmingham in 1978 and then moved to Walsall with his family that same year.  He went to school in Walsall and also studied for his Art Foundation Course at Walsall College.  His father and brother still live in Walsall and his sister lives in Birmingham.

The exhibition brings together significant bodies of work, drawing on a range of interests including classical music, the history of art, literature, philosophy and religion.  It provides an overview of the artist’s practice, highlighting some of the themes and ideas which have remained prevalent within his work and includes works which span across photography, sculpture and painting.

The earliest work in the exhibition is White Court (2001), an analogue photograph of a squash court wall, face on, bearing the marks made by the impact of coloured squash balls.  In appearance, it looks more like a Cy Twombly painting than a sports hall in Walsall. It was taken at Khan’s former primary school where his late mother used to play.  This simple image, created whilst the artist was a student in Derby, demonstrates Khan’s early fascination with photography’s inherent relationship to painting and the exploration of an expanded sense of time. Abstraction meets autobiography.

Idris Khan, Seven Times, 2017. Installation shot, The New Art Gallery Walsall. Photo: Jonathan Shaw.

Idris Khan, Seven Times, 2017. Installation shot, The New Art Gallery Walsall. Photo: Jonathan Shaw.

Also included in this major exhibition is the stunning sculptural installation Seven Times, combining minimalist art with Islamic traditions, as well as two brand new layered glass paintings and a glass sculpture seen for the first time in the UK.

We have also worked with Hatje Cantz to produce a major publication with support from the artist; Victoria Miro, London; Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin; Sean Kelly Gallery, New York and Walsall Museums & Art Galleries Development Trust.

Jean Painlevé, film still from The Seahorse, 1934 © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.  Image courtesy of Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.

Jean Painlevé, film still from The Seahorse, 1934 © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.  Image courtesy of Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Jacques Cousteau; not because I had any interest in science whatsoever, but because I was enthralled with the incredible underwater world.  This is a world which is inhabited by creatures of many shapes, sizes and colours; it is a world that defies gravity, that heightens the senses and that brings us closer to nature.
 
Ikon Gallery is currently showing the first solo exhibition of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé (1902-1989). He was not an artist I was familiar with, but his passion for his subject, his inventive approach to film making and his cross-disciplinary approach which involved commissioning artists and composers to work alongside him, won him the admiration and respect of artists such as Man Ray, Alexander Calder and Sergei Eisenstein.

Jean Painlevé, Shrimp Tail greatly enlarged, 1929 © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris. Image courtesy of Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.

Jean Painlevé, Shrimp Tail greatly enlarged, 1929 © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris. Image courtesy of Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.

From a trippy and trance-y film focusing on the movement of micro-organisms to a beautiful study of the childbirth and nurturing of seahorses to the compelling portrait of a hermaphrodite mollusc, Painlevé transported me back to that world of wonder under the sea. Instructive and engaging, these incredible films reveal a profound sensitivity and respect for nature, a brilliant and groundbreaking approach to the presentation of sound and image and a genuine passion to draw audiences into this remarkable world.

Idris Khan: A World Within continues at The New Art Gallery Walsall until 7 May, Jean Painlevé's first solo exhibition can be seen at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until 4 June 2017

Idris Khan is represented by Victoria Miro, London; Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin; Sean Kelly, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.