PRINT January 2006

Peyman Rahimi

MONSTERS TEND TO BE little more than imaginative amalgamations of real beings, as one realizes when reading, say, Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, in which the author enumerates a litany of classical monsters (including the minotaur, a combination of man and bull, and the centaur, man and horse) and then concocts a few new ones still lacking names. In principle, such a mythological zoo would be infinitely rich in its juxtapositions and aggregations. But as Jorge Luis Borges points out in The Book of Imaginary Beings—even while digging deep into the annals of classical and Oriental literature himself—the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of reality. Perhaps that explains why Peyman Rahimi, a young Iranian artist, has taken as his main subject the fantastic garden inhabited by creatures that, for all their odd, extraordinarily colorful, and overly ornamental patterns and textures of skin and fur, are almost immediately recognizable as snakes, birds, or wildcats. Without being given a chance to resist, we are dragged into a world of parodic exoticism in which, strangely enough, we immediately feel at home—a world whose visual language, it turns out, provides an allegory for the elision of such dichotomies as Western and Eastern, traditional and contemporary.

Born in 1977 in Tehran to a family that he describes as very Western in its lifestyle, Rahimi started as an artist with symmetric compositions inspired by the carpets of his native country and the ornate style of its architecture, until he moved on to installations that, at least to Western eyes, seem to reference the mosque. Often involving a fountain at the center of a balanced and harmonious space, these works hardly ever left the artist’s studio and thus remained sites for private meditation. Rahimi eventually relocated to Frankfurt, at the age of twenty, to study painting with Christa Näher, first lady of the German neo-baroque. His first gallery shows, all within the past few years in Frankfurt and Cologne, featured large and extravagant works on paper in which spectacular animals are far less symmetrically positioned: The gardens these birds, snakes, and large cats inhabit become spatially perplexing, marked by complicated geometries through which the beasts tumble—a Garden of Eden suffused with action.

Today Rahimi sees himself as a painter in the broadest sense: He frequently employs silk-screen techniques to construct his fabulist scenes and regularly samples visuals from both the mass media and from other artists’ work in order to produce his large prints on textiles and paper. Indeed, an untitled piece from 2004 directly references Näher’s work, the iconograpic and tonal affinity between the artists evident in their predilections for animals and skulls as alle- gorical signifiers, ruminations on life and death. In other pieces, this symbolism is well hidden; one has to look closely for the skulls, for instance, to spring forth. Such intricate compositions may indeed bear Näher’s neo-baroque influence, but here decadence is Rahimi’s point of reference. Not surprisingly, his favorite city is Rome, where he collects curious visual material on long strolls. A skull from the gate of a Roman graveyard is depicted in a number of ornamental works, some of which look as if they could be a thousand years old—and yet, given the screenprinting medium, I would insist that at least some of Rahimi’s works could be called descendents of Pop. An untitled artist’s book from 2003 shows his intense interest in media coverage of Tehran and in the political developments there since the 1979 revolution: Images of mass hysteria, destroyed monuments, and religious symbols confront signs of radical modernity, such as veiled women with machine guns—all of it culled from newspapers, manipulated and cut into fragments to seem at once ancient and utterly contemporary. What would be a decadent’s dream of the cruel beauty of distant revolutions here suggests that a Pop sensibility may yet be political today.

The first time I noticed Rahimi’s art was on an invitation card announcing a 2004 exhibition in Frankfurt. It showed a young, glamorous couple in a modern-looking garden. The man was Rahimi himself (his face Photoshopped in). An elegant leopard lay before him—just another member of the family. This is how I imagine the lives of Tehran’s in-crowd during the ’70s, but in truth these people look so chic, it’s a provocation. Consider the invitation in light of Rahimi’s Frankfurter Kunstverein show in 2001, where he screenprinted a flag displaying an Arabic text distorted to the point of illegibility. The flag will seem at first totally decorative to audiences regardless of background—but research reveals the language to be that of Goethe citing the Koran’s Arabic script in his West-Eastern Divan. Western and Eastern iconographies are short-circuited, producing a cosmos that is inviting but difficult to navigate. Finally, we are made to realize that the Middle Eastern exotica the artist repeatedly displays invite our projections only to throw them back on us: Rahimi uses the strongest cultural clichés to produce an aesthetic universe that forces us beyond them.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.