After a long, slow burn, Sahar Khoury has taken Bay Area art by storm in the past two years. The Oakland artist’s bracingly irreverent attitude to the traditions that bound ceramics for centuries has placed her at the top of many curatorial and collector lists, with solo shows at two different galleries, a featured position in the 2018 “Bay Area Now” exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and a recently announced SECA Award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But if her adventurous approach is reminiscent of the free spirit of Voulkos, Khoury’s startling mix of media — from leather belts and steel bolts that hold sculptures together, to a ready embrace of humble materials like papier-mâché and cheap plastic — sets her apart from the master. Voulkos and other key ceramics artists of the 1950s and ’60s set out to upend convention, but they recognized its boundaries. Khoury is not incrementally revising custom; she simply ignores it.
Khoury’s “Untitled (15 Esthers in pyramid on bone relief plinth)” (2018), placed at the center of a small fountain visible through a glass wall, is a stuttering, dreamlike vision of a fluffy little creature — a wall label tells us Esther is the artist’s dog — heroicized, an avatar of pride and empowerment. It is the standout object in the show, both for its haunting aspect and its brilliant placement.
Maybe the works I was most smitten by are the sculptures of Sahar Khoury. The artist’s previous exhibitions are a decent guide as to what she has done, with metal work, ceramic, and papier-mâché, strange itinerant forms, her pets etc. all with staring roles. But her installation, incorporating the impossible space next to the stairs and the adjacent, usually unused/ignored space of the small triangular outdoor space and its pond, is exceptional as the artists practice keeps getting better and better – formally creative and super personal.
Khoury’s work, here shown in New York for the first time, is a wonderful surprise. The artist uses a host of materials and techniques – among them poured concrete, papier-mâché, old clothes, painting, bamboo and more – in creating her paintings and sculptures. In one of my favorite pieces, Untitled (triangle, rug pedestal) (2017), a patch of mint-green machine-made rug is sunk into the side of a concrete sculpture that resembles a line drawing of a right-angled triangle. Other patches of the concrete are tinted with light pink paint (perhaps the effect of painting into wet cement). There is something alchemical about the way Khoury uses materials here. However industrial, she prods them into feeling gentle and supple. For example, there is a series of holes in the base of the sculpture that, in Khoury’s hands, appear torn away rather than, say, drilled, which makes the stony construction material feel soft and vulnerable. I’m also taken with the way Khoury builds modes of display into the works themselves: one painting has a hanging device made of four paper shopping-bag handles that stick out of its top edge, and another hangs from a 60cm-tall bamboo triangle. An improvisational mode of problem solving is embedded into the formal qualities of the works.
Sahar Khoury’s exhibition at the Luggage Store fills a substantial gallery, and it’s a killer. By that I mean it is twisted and unpredictable in all the best ways, but also that some of her works are knifed apart. One work was finished off with gunshots. Khoury shows off a wide range of technical experiment, from hand-formed ceramic to cast cement to papier-mache. These are unconventionally combined, whether together or with scraps of found materials. The works often reference the domestic — vase forms on stands, paintings pieced together from old clothing — but they can also be abstract in unbalanced, unnatural ways. All of them are rough, some brutal, like adolescent products of a violently dysfunctional home. A gang of free-standing integers, each the height of a woman and woozily anchored by a heavy metal or poured concrete footing, occupies the center of the gallery. A handout says the work is untitled, but it sorts the numbers into spans of years (“1948/1995, 1953/1979”) that “mark nationality and memory formation in Iranian and Palestinian histories.” It doesn’t take Wikipedia to know that these were periods of instability and violence, of clashing cultures and splintered social structures.