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Establishing Secure Connection 

Kian Rad Pouvan at Epitome Gallery

Pen and ink drawing by Kian Rad Pouyan.

Photo by L.L. Kessner

Pen and ink drawing by Kian Rad Pouyan.

An Iranian cartoonist, a French gallerist and an American art writer walk into Old Town, Eureka.

OK, so not exactly, but kind of. Within a few minutes of stepping into Epitome Gallery to see the provocative and emotional pen and ink drawings by Kian Rad Pouyan, I was talking with him, face to digitized face over Instagram from Iran on the phone of Epitome's owner Jullia Finkelstein. In the same hour, I got to video chat to France with Sophie Crumb, owner of Galerie Vidourle Prix in Sauve, whose work is also on display at Epitome.

Connections like these — unlikely, disembodied, authentic, technologically facilitated, and meaningful — are at the heart of the Epitome exhibition. Pouyan's images contain similar contradictions. They are high-contrast, cross-hatched renderings of stylized figures and haunted sidewalk scenes, twisted with pop graphics and skulls. They present a world away that is fascinatingly foreign through scenes that are strikingly universal. They are funny and ominous, deceptively simple and richly textured.

Pouyan tells me he started drawing again in 2022, at 29 years old, for the first time since high school. When I ask what inspired him to start making art, he picks up a fountain pen from a nearby table, stating, "My cousin gave me this." Pouyan notes that around that time he also saw the 2012 documentary For No Good Reason, about the work of artist Ralph Steadman, and says that this inspired him for a while.

He had some drawings published in local newspapers, but Pouyan says the local media couldn't connect with his work. Tehranian publications found the images "too dark" and that they presented the "dark [side] of society." From his home in Mashhad, a holy city in the Khorasan desert in north-eastern Iran and 550 miles from its capital Tehran, Pouvan posted his drawings to Instagram.

In Sauve, France, the images caught the eye of Crumb. Crumb is the daughter of Robert Crumb, famed American cartoonist of the psychedelic movement who created Fritz the Cat and the cover of Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills. She grew up in Winters, California, and her brother, artist Jesse Crumb, eventually settled in Humboldt County. Jesse died in 2018 and Sophie traveled back to Humboldt in 2023 in what she describes as a "pilgrimage."

Crumb says in 2022 she had become interested in "forbidden art." She was drawn in by the detail in Pouvan's pictures. The connection she experienced through the work was personal. She describes being fascinated by the experiencing of seeing this other country and other culture through the specific eyes of an alienated member of that society. The two connected on Instagram and Crumb explains that Pouyan sent her a "weird" (and clearly charming) message over Instagram Voice asking if she knew any editors.

Crumb wanted to arrange an exhibition of Pouyan's work in France, but first they needed to find out if the drawings would make it out of Iran. Pouyan sent a single drawing as a test. The image got to Crumb, who has since organized several exhibits of original drawings.

Crumb had previously been at an artist residency with Garberville artist and musician, Ernesto Gomez. It was Gomez who suggested that Crumb visit Epitome while she was in town. Immediately, she says she thought the gallery would be a great place to show Pouyan's work. Both Crumb and Finkelstein emphasize that Gomez was instrumental in making the exhibition possible.

Crumb says she made sure to explain to Pouyan that Eureka is not the California he might imagine. "I told him it's cold and there's zombies walking around." She says that he immediately said, "It's perfect for me."

Pouyan cannot get to Eureka, or to France. He is not allowed to leave the country because he did not complete his required military service. His work, however, can travel. And so can his image and his voice — to the gallery to talk with Finkelstein and me, and frequently to France to communicate with Crumb.

Some of Crumb's drawings are also on display at Epitome, opposite Pouyan's. Her ink images here are all portraits of Pouyan and they give him a physical presence in the gallery. Taken together, the artwork and the backstory of the show, all the participants and the splash of happenstance that manifested it, reflect communication and connection. It's a show about distance, tensions and worldly realities, but it's also a show about idealism: impossible relationships, and what is possible when people work together.

Pouyan and Crumb's work is on view at Epitome Gallery (420 Second St., Eureka) through June 30. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4:20 p.m.

L.L. Kessner is an Arcata-based artist and writer.

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