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The characters that populate Jean Pierre Khazem's photographs seem to inhabit a parallel world to ours. Where have they strayed in from? Toonland? Sesame Street? Helmut Newton's dream diary? Exploiting references ranging from 80s pop videos and fashion, to advertising and film, Khazem cooks up an anarchic and nonsensical universe in which tension springs from the unlikely meeting between the cuddly and the psychotic.
The principal conceit of Khazem's work is the mask, or large home-made prosthetic head: an elephant, a lion, a beaked and bug-eyed bird; most often a girl, not pretty, not exactly idealized, a smooth-skinned dead-eyed creature who has something of Japanese manga cartoons about her. Both the animals and the girls are deadpan, and give little away; their almost mournful features transfer easily from scenario to scenario.
Sometimes, when the image is simple and located in the familiar 'real' world of buildings and traffic, Khazem's photographs invite conjecture about the role of the artist. That man in the lion's head in the street - who is he? We can't speak to him; he's a lion. Maybe that's Khazem under the mask. Maybe, as an artist, Khazem can adopt any disguise he likes; maybe he's strong as a lion and fragile as a thin-limbed boy underneath. It looks like a good thing to be able to walk down the street as a lion - but we're not sure. It's disconcerting.
In the many photographs using animal heads, Khazem asks us to enter another world more fully. One series shows what seems to be the underbelly of Toonland: we're hanging out with a crazed bunny, an elephant, some mice; they're doing drug deals outside the bar, chilling by the pool table ('Miller Genuine', reads the neon sign in the background, archly), and generally going about their nocturnal and somewhat seedy business. This is children's television land on an off night; out of work cuddly toys scoring crack to pass the time. Khazem, with some humor, collides his generic fun-fur people with inner-city blight and a dash of film noir, and milks the threat.
Meanwhile, over in the park, Twin Peaks meets Big Bird on Elm St. In a series of night-time images Khazem poses his bird-headed models in vaguely suggestive set-pieces: a gray-beaked ostrich woman in a purple acrylic top leans back against the bowl of a tree. Her exquisitely manicured hand peeks out from beneath her dress. A female form with a lilac-colored beak seems to do yoga in the park. The night shooting and dramatic lighting lend a surreal air to the proceedings. Even the real grass looks unreal. Whatever's going on in this shadowy public park (are they cruising for a bit of rough, these Children's - TV-land-glamour women? Or just waiting?), we the viewers are vicarious, intrigued and willing participants.
The strong sexual undertones in Khazem's work become most overt in his portraits of women. Scantily-clad models lounge about in cheap hotel rooms; they look desultory on pink bedspreads, or lean, apparently available in some sense, against flimsy film-set walls. Their expressionless masks suggest sadness, deflating the eroticism of dress or pose. Yet the pictures don't seem to be much concerned with unraveling the conventions of fashion or men's mag photography. These aren't Cindy Sherman-style explorations of female stereotypes - they're too humorous for that, only: who's laughing at whom? It might be that Khazem is seeing how far he can go in implying a generic porn situation (the props in his hotel rooms suggest low-budget movies), but in these images what wins out is a sense of the absurd. A Khazem woman on a pebbly beach is more entertaining when seen as a warped pastiche of a Bill Brandt nude than as a comment on fashion imagery.
Sometimes these pictures refreshingly poke fun, as in one image of a model (wearing a big girl's head mask) resting on a window ledge, her stilleto'd foot drawn up in classic photo magazine pose. Khazem has his cake and eats it too: enjoying the unabashed sensuality of a beautiful model in lingerie, yet underwriting and sanctioning it through the more unpredictable concerns of Art. The images tread a fine line, but it's a dark humor that saves the day.
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery, Paris, France, 1998
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
'Now', Fargfabriken, Stockholm, Sweden, 1999
'Art Childhood', Pilzer Gallery, Paris, France, 1999
'The Spiritual Slide of Beauty', Marella Arte Contemporanea, Sarnico, Italy, 1999
Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery, Paris, France, 1999
Fiac, Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery Stand, Paris, France, 1999
Paper Magazine, Holly Soloman Gallery, New York, USA, 1999
List 99, Basel, Switzerland, 1999
Chicago Art Fair, Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery Stand, Chicago, USA, 1999
In de van de ring, Stedelijk Modemuseum, Hasselt, Belgium, 1999
Fiac, Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery Stand, Paris, France, 1998
Levis, Citizen K, Passage de Retz, Paris, France, 1997
National Center of Photography, Photofolie, Palace of Tokyo, France, 1993
National Center of Photography, Photofolie, Palace of Tokyo, France, 1992