Khan does not shy away from passionately embracing the major icons of the art historical canon. In “Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny” (2006) we see Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” gazing out at us from beneath layers of text from the artwork’s namesake tome. “The Uncanny” was an essay from 1919 in which Freud describes the idea of the uncanny in terms of cognitive dissonance- how something can be strange and yet familiar, a sensation brought about via a number of causes (one example being repetition- which Khan illustrates quite literally in his layering of Freud’s text, and figuratively in his photography of famous artworks).
In Khan’s work, we see the Mona Lisa’s likeness nearly obfuscated by text and yet seeping through the words, the placement of which creates a literary sfumato around one of the most famous women known to mankind. Freud’s focus on the uncanny- in German, ‘heimlich’- carries a double-meaning of being something at once familiar and secretive- always an underlying theme for artists who can do justice to appropriation.Khan swaths the Mona Lisa in repeatedly photographed and layered text defining the very notion of the sublime- something da Vinci managed to do with merely a paintbrush. Suddenly she is reborn in the vernacular- removed from her thick plastic encasing to reveal herself as a woman for the ages.
The overlaid text enshrines her in a new, updated context- one that addresses the fascination with da Vinci’s portrait that has lasted for centuries. Her visage is so familiar, and yet she retains a certain mystique that keeps visitors flooding to the Louvre to catch a glimpse of her. On the opposite page, we find Khan irreverently playing around his formula, pairing the famous Leonardo work, “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne,” with text by Freud alluding to the existence of eroticism between mother and child.
And yet it all still looks new. Khan breathes new life into works that already have their places set in stone in art history. This young artist becomes involved not only with the work, but with the histories of the Old Masters themselves, creating a dynamism in his photography that is at once intimate and familiar- heimlich. We have seen these great works before, but they are recontextualized within a new history currently being written by great emerging artists.
Idris Kahn is a graduate of the Royal College of Art. He lives and works in London, where he is represented by the Victoria Miro Gallery. He had a major solo show in 2008 at K20 in Dusseldorf, and Art News has listed him as one of their Future Greats.