For a District-based artist, Avish Khebrehzadeh's accomplishments are singular. Not only was she included in last year's Venice Biennale (nearly unheard of for a Washington artist), she took home the show's Young Italian Art Award.
In the context of the international art circuit, though, Khebrehzadeh comes off, on paper at least, like many other artists working today. With a bio emphasizing her exotic birthplace -- Tehran -- instead of her studio location, coupled with her Italian schooling and inclusion in 1999's Istanbul Biennial, she has the multinational pedigree that passport-clutching art world types approve of.
Likewise, the cachet of her exhibition venues -- right now she holds concurrent shows at the home of contemporary art collectors Tony and Heather Podesta, her de facto patrons and legendary enthusiasts of slick photo-based works, and at Conner Contemporary Art, her Washington dealer -- provides a context that brings along with it a set of assumptions: that her work be in your face, or disenchanted, or digital.
Yet Khebrehzadeh's work is hardly so predictable. It is sweet and bracingly sentimental. Though she has gained significant footing in the international art world, her talent registers as what it isn't: It's not photo-based or detached. I have yet to detect irony, even when she evokes bygone days. Though she does make drawings, some animated, that link her to South African polemicist William Kentridge, her work appears unconcerned with politics.
And so the expansive video room of the Podestas' Falls Church home was not the place I expected to find large-scale drawings whose main ingredient is olive oil. (Khebrehzadeh uses the oil as if it were a color wash; it lends a sepia cast to large sections of her work.) Of course, the artist also projects video footage above these works on paper, so there's a 21st-century element at work here, too. Still, such earthy ingredients seem almost anathema to contemporary art. And the video is most often of animated drawings, not urban decay.
Before I go on, the brief back story on the Podesta involvement: The couple were intrigued by Khebrehzadeh's exhibition in Venice last year. Back home, during a studio visit, Khebrehzadeh bemoaned the lack of studio space to realize large-scale works (her recent images measure more than 23 feet wide), which prompted Tony Podesta to offer the artist keys to his Virginia house, where a video room would offer substantial walls. Now the works have been realized, and that same video room proves the only space big enough to show these museum-scale works. So half the exhibition, originally planned for Conner Contemporary's space, is on view in Falls Church. (The show at Conner features one smaller-scale drawing/video work alongside a handful of ancillary studies.)
Though she benefits from the generosity of big-time contemporary art patrons, Khebrehzadeh's themes register as decidedly folkloric and timeless. The two pieces at the Podestas' ("The Parade" and "Tightrope Walker," sold separately but connected thematically and visually) reference a small Middle Eastern town's circus act. Accompanied by a rhythmic drum-and-horn soundtrack, "The Parade" is a drawing of circus elephants in a conga line with a contortionist doing the splits just above. The video that screens above the image shows a horn player and drummer who enter, play for a minute or so, and then exit stage right.
It's drawn and conceived with a storybook simplicity, and the themes and sounds hark back to the artist's childhood in Tehran. (In this respect, Khebrehzadeh operates closest to art world norms, what with non-Western heritage being something of a selling point these days.) But it's the straightforwardness of "The Parade" and the child-like dreaminess of its execution that set Khebrehzadeh apart. At Conner, the gallery's main piece, "One Summer Outing," is similarly sentimental. This time the central image is a simple line drawing of two ladies rowing a boat accompanied by younger children seated at their feet. The women wear hats and long full skirts, as if they've just stepped out of Pierre Auguste Renoir's "Le Moulin de la Galette." The video above is a vignette featuring two men -- most of Khebrehzadeh's figures are ambiguously gendered -- who enter stage left with a small child, pass through the scene, and exit to the right, followed by a dog. Once they pass, three swimmers glide dreamily over the scene and depart. Melancholic piano music provides the soundtrack. And that's it.
Simple, yes. And almost formless. Almost. Whatever Khebrehzadeh's work does for you, it'll do it over time. "One Summer Outing" works if you give it a moment, pulling at your heartstrings with its superimposed family scenes. Still, it takes time to ingest the languid piano, observe the elegant swimmers and make sense of it all. Ultimately, it's unclear exactly what the piece means, though it's surely closer to poetry than polemics. Likewise, the circus-themed works have a way of sticking in your head, even if you're never quite clear what the artist is up to.
Khebrehzadeh's work is so light and her drawing style so simple, that it's tempting to write it off. Yet there is a melancholy in the lonely, disconnected figures on the boat, or in the sideshow elephants' eagerness to please, that's worth paying attention to.
Avish Khebrehzadeh at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and by appointment at the Falls Church home of Tony and Heather Podesta, 202-588-8750, to Oct. 5.