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Sanam Khatibi: An hour before the Devil fell

Sanam Khatibi’s recumbent nudes and cabinet-sized still lifes raise more questions than they answer. For her first solo show in the United States, the Belgian artist takes her title from The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s exemplar of American moralism. The full quotation, “until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in heaven,” is uttered by Miller’s John Hale, a puritan pastor involved in the Salem witch trials, and it warns against deception: what seems sweet may be wicked. The sense that surface appearances cannot be trusted rings true for Khatibi’s paintings, but these works leave unfulfilled the moralizing imperative toward unambiguous answers. Instead, Khatibi refuses to resolve the false binaries her work engages: dominance and submission, animal and human, cerebral and carnal, past and future.

The show at P·P·O·W consists of 22 paintings and two wall-bound sculptures (all 2019). Five large paintings depict reposing, peachy-porcelain nudes arranged on shallow, tree-framed outcroppings, surrounded by the detritus of extravagant feasts: dishes loaded with fruit, meticulously-crafted cakes, chalices alight with flames, even an oyster shell full of pearls. This bounty, however, is haunting. In This is the beast with a thousand mouths, that must be fed twice a day, two slim patches of light creep onto a sloping bluff on which a woman reaches toward a decapitated rabbit’s grisly entrails, flayed body, and severed limbs. Not a leaf moves. Khatibi’s paintings are rendered as if frozen in time, and their narratives remain unresolved. Although they quote the history of Western painting—Botticelli’s frolicking nymphs, Cranach’s virgins, and classical statuary come to mind—Khatibi’s canvases empty out the legibility of that tradition’s myths and allegories. Rather than offering any obvious metaphor, a narrative’s imagined past, or a vision of the future, the paintings seem to detain us in a perpetual present.

In the center of the exhibition’s first gallery, a low plinth displays assortments of the objects that populate Khatibi’s paintings: ceramic vases, painted bowls, writhing snakes, and plastic sprigs of flora. At first this collection seems like a key to past elsewheres, now archaeologically re-presented. However, closer examination reveals the impossibility that these things, or at least all of them, come from a distant past: there is a heterogeneity of material and manufacture here that is linked to our current moment. The presence of these objects, then, reframes the entire gallery as a kind of stage set within which bodies and things can be endlessly rearranged. Like Khatibi’s paintings, it constructs a space for the projection, not for fantasies of the future, but for different configurations of possibility in the present.

With the exception of just one work, Novels from the Second Empire, in which an expressionless man hoists an upside-down beast to his shoulder, Khatibi’s painted universe is entirely female—even, perhaps, matriarchal. Collected in figural groupings that suggest some kind of ceremonial congress, each woman seems sure of the task at hand, even if that task is unclear to us. Fully engrossed by their prey or by each other, most of the figures look askance, distracted, or aloof. Of all the female figures in the P·P·O·W paintings, only one looks straight out at the viewer, but her face is blank, acknowledging nothing. This could offer a possible reading of Khatibi’s choice to leave exposed the graphite marks that denote her women’s eyes, mouths, nipples, and pubic areas. By rendering these zones flatly, the artist limits their expressiveness and deemphasizes the female body as fetishized object of desire. This is not merely a feminist challenge to the voyeuristic gaze, but something more radical and further-reaching. Khatibi imagines a world in which power has been redistributed and the inheritance of gendered dominance is nothing more than a memory.