Kamrooz Aram’s paintings have a lot going on in them—explosions, showers of light, flights of nimbus-headed angels, flapping flags and pennants, whizzing snail-shaped clouds, flowers spraying from camouflage, flames shooting from vegetation and looming falcons, slurries of color drooling and dripping through space, shreds of bright matter wheeling in glistening skies.
Velocity and visual amplitude typify this artist’s canvases, as if he were fixing as many elements of a rapidly mutating dream as he could remember. Not that they’re formally chaotic (or invariably packed with incident); Aram is usually partial to symmetry and internal pictorial logic. Crypto-Abstract Expressionist veils and drips combine with things that are unmistakably things; the style of his work as well as its manifest content effect a hybridization we could liken to a familiar but not-quite-nameable, liquefying plant, maybe one that swallows live prey.
Aram was born in Iran in 1978 and has lived in the United States since age eight. His work riffs on imagery found in Persian miniatures and carpet patterns, Shiite posters and Arabic writing, but this material figures in contexts where original cosmological systems or hortatory meanings dissolve, or blend with Western analogues. There isn’t a pointed collision of cultures in Aram’s pictures, but rather the fluid synthesis artists conjure from what they encounter in waking and dreaming life, which can be events of trauma or epiphany or, just as easily, the casually registered minutiae of a walk down the street.
In a mass-mediated world, it’s impossible to slice a scalpel line between cultures, between “East” and “West” or similar binary constructs. The world’s contents have mingled in a vast collective potlatch available by Internet, cell phone, television, satellite and an ever-expanding inventory of connective gadgetry that looks at us while we look at it. While this universe of data is “virtual,” existing in spaces beyond our direct physical experience, it has merged with reality in a frantic delirium. One can at best stage encounters of differing sign systems and signifiers, pluck things from local contexts and set them in larger, homogenizing schemes, shift them from the subjective to the seemingly ontological. We strip the signs of meanings and intentions, and reconstitute them as bytes of the polymorphic imaginary.
The space of early video-game graphics, Aram noticed at an early age, closely resembles that of Persian miniatures. The spatial arrangements in much of his early art derive as much from one as the other. Likewise, the Persian or Islamic motifs in his pictures indicate meaning in the broad sense of universal sign-age rather than insist on arcane specificities. He has observed that what serve as sacred objects in one culture—the Virgin of Guadalupe, the mystical encryption layered into Persian carpet designs—become kitsch, or ironic decoration, in another. The sources he cites for his work come from a globalized, supersaturated realm of peripatetic and mutative images, the quick-registering cacophony of contemporary visual Esperanto.
There’s no way to read Aram’s work didactically, or to find in it a conventional kind of “otherness” confronting its viewer. It does reference the complicated and violent interplay of the West with what is called the Near or Middle East—or, perhaps more accurately, it models, in broad, almost cartoonish fashion, the strange condition of interwoven cultural signifiers and debris the viewer associates with that encounter. As Aram said in a 2006 conversation with Lauri Firstenberg, “The iconography is never something you can quite put your finger on. . . . It’s more about this carnivalesque, absurd, magical and scary present day.”1
While it takes a particularly determined optimism to apply “magical” to the present day, we do live in carnivalesque times—carnivalesque in the sense of Ensor or Bosch, anyway—and Aram has clearly been influenced by sources that emit some magical resonances, including psychedelic art, cathedral ceilings, Giotto, the preternatural light in Ross Bleckner’s paintings, as well as the brilliant coloring and fantastic geometries of Islamic art, the figural novelties of ancient miniatures and other art redolent of transcendence. The stormy landscapes of August Strindberg, with their flecks and drizzles of thick paint, rock outcroppings, indeterminate horizons and mist-shrouded flowers, also come to mind—although they’re probably not among Aram’s inventory of sources.