Iran chic 

Rashin Kheiriyeh paints a quirky collection of vogue women

At first glance, Rashin Kheiriyeh's acrylic paintings look like something discovered on the walls of a Persian castle. The ivory arms of ladies look eaten away by time. Their ornate "oriental style" dresses are chipped like old stone and marked with ghostly fading. There's a hint of the macabre as well, as if Edward Gorey had possessed the paintings just long enough to add a touch of surreal editorializing. A closer look reveals modern details. The chest of one woman sports a newspaper-like image of an important bearded man. The same kind of newspaper in another painting serves as a billowing dress and hat for a woman listening to a phonograph from whose speaker blares images of flowery silhouettes.

Kheiriyeh, 32, is an edgy animation director, illustrator and painter who was born in Khoramshar, Iran. When she was just a year old, she was forced by Iraqi troops to flee with her family to Tehran. She studied art at Azadegan Art School at 15, then studied graphic art at Alzahra University. She now has a studio in New York City. In Missoula this week you can catch her exhibit To Be A Woman at the Dana Gallery.

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Kheiriyeh is a rising star in Iran, but the rest of the world has caught on, too. Her work was chosen in 2008 to be displayed at the International Library of Munich, Germany. She was honored with best book of the year from the Tehran Book Council in 2005 and 2006. Last year she received the Award of Excellence at the 51st Annual Illustration Exhibition of Communication Arts and the Crystal Roc award for best animation at the 28th Fajr International Film Festival in Iran. Korea, Italy and India have all honored her.

Iran's modern art movement sprung from the radical politics of the 1940s, when the country created more ties with the West and rejected the rigid academic painting of the past.

This is what I love about Kheiriyeh—that she provides a way back into Persian history through an immensely playful and hip angle. Antique aesthetics mingle with hot pink splashes. Rippling black dresses that look like traditional Iranian garb are juxtaposed with bright green backgrounds and modern coffee mugs. What has been a symbol of the past suddenly seems remarkably in vogue.

Kheiriyeh's animations and clever children's book illustrations are funny and vivid—up there with the best of Pixar. In one book, If Cats Wore Boots, she shows obese men with long handlebar moustaches, a smarmy celebrity with sunglasses receiving a cocktail from a butler and a spaceship full of mice blasting off as townspeople in colorful costumes bid farewell with handkerchiefs.

To Be a Woman is an interesting exhibition title, since to be a woman matters in context. Other Iranian artists such as Shirin Nesha have used visual art to great effect for grappling with the exile and identity issues Iranian women face. The women of Kheiriyeh's works are complex in different ways: some are familiar in their modern look, others seem to be hinting at politics. In most, the women appear confident and easygoing despite surreal elements that seep through. In one piece, women in white scarves stand against an azure background. Fish swim in their dresses. In another, two young Western-styled Iranian women sit together drinking wine, facing the viewer as if momentarily interrupted. In all of these you can see Kheiriyeh's training in graphic design working for her in a non-commercial way. The images are simple, utilizing just one or two bright washes of color to capture the eye. And tradition goes hand-in-hand with satire—just enough to feel like a wink and a nudge.

Rashin Kheiriyeh's To Be a Woman opens at the Dana Gallery annex with a reception Friday, Dec. 2, from 5 to 8 PM, with work by Iranian artist Parvin. Free.

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