On first inspection, Amir H Fallah's Circling the World to Return is as attractive as its influences; the layered textures of spring fruits and flowers leaping out from a black background take obvious inspiration from the Dutch and Flemish still life painting that flourished in the 17th century. However, on closer inspection and almost concealed by its darkened tones, a plump rat is scampering through the foliage.
"When I finished the show, that rat was my favourite part out of all the paintings," says Fallah. "I really like the fact that he is kind of camouflaged. From far away the painting looks pleasant, it is circular and inviting and you are getting sucked into this vortex and then there is a dirty fat rat in the middle of it. It fights with the beautiful colours, layering and composition."
The painting is the showpiece of Fallah's current exhibition, The Arrangement, up in the Project Space in Dubai's Third Line gallery until the end of the month. It is one of a collection of paintings each based on a seminal floral still life masterpiece that has been reinterpreted and rearranged.
Using the technique of collage, Fallah scanned images of the original paintings and manipulated the image digitally before cutting out the flowers and pasting them on to create a layered composition. In some cases, he drew the flowers on paper before attaching them and in other places he painted directly on to the canvas. As well as these different techniques, the work contains many different materials - oil and acrylic paint, pencil, charcoal and digital prints.
There are, for a more careful observer, references to skateboarding graphics, revealing autobiographical details that begin to tell the story of this 33-year-old Iranian who was born in Tehran and ended up living and working in Los Angeles, California.
"In a way, yes, these paintings are a portrait of me. There are a lot of disparate things that I am putting together and trying to unify visually by making them all live in the same world and somehow making sense," he explains. "The art work is about the entire world, but it is my entire world. I could literally break down every piece and tell you how it came about."
So, from the floral ornamentation prevalent in Middle Eastern art to his use of borders, which Fallah explains are simultaneously a reference to the borders on Persian miniature paintings and a way of breaking up the space in a nod to minimalism, every minute detail is important.
"I also ran a magazine for 12 years, so I use Photoshop and Illustrator and page layout also influences my work," he continues, referring to the contemporary art magazine Beautiful Decay that he founded in the 1990s. "The different cultural and social references are all over the place. Some are high, some are low, some are ingrained in art history and some have nothing to do with art at all."
However, the beauty in Fallah's painting lies in the fact that it doesn't matter if all of these references pass you by. In the end, he has created a series of aesthetically pleasing works that anyone and everyone will find appealing.
"I want my paintings to be beautiful," he says. "Some people think that is a dirty word with art but I'm OK with people calling them beautiful, as long as there is something behind it, other things to keep your brain thinking."
And that's where the rat comes in. According to Janice Neri, the author of The Insect and the Image: Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, the early still life paintings of the Golden Age often contained insects and other small creatures such as frogs and rats, firstly to offer surprise and delight to the attentive viewer and second for their visual complexity. However, they also had a deeper meaning, symbolising death and decay, and life's impermanence.
"I think these paintings are definitely relevant today. If you start looking into the history of this work, you will see they were a portrait of their time. Almost all of them are covered in insects and rats and birds, which starts you thinking about how they didn't have refrigeration and were probably working on dirt floors. To me, that is very interesting, not to mention all the metaphors and symbolism.
"So, by me taking those images and not doing a traditional rendering, what I am throwing into the grab bag is that maybe in two or three hundred years from now, people might look at my work and wonder why I used the techniques such as digital printing. There is a connection there."
But the story that nobody will surmise, unless they question the artist himself, is how Fallah reached this point in the first place. What triggered this abstract artist to delve into the world of Dutch and Flemish still life?
"It started out with my mother," he says. "She wanted me to paint her something pretty for her birthday." Begrudging such a deviation, he finally agreed and started painting a seven-by-five-foot canvas of flowers.
"I was already using collage in my abstract paintings, so I used my regular methods of image making and then, in the same painting, I had an abstraction of a flower, next to a digitally altered reproduction, next to a hand-painted representation, next to a cartoonish outline. About halfway through, it became like a who's who of art history and it sent me on a roller coaster of art historical references from Brice Marden to Jackson Pollock. That for me was really interesting."
That painting, titled The Original Mom Painting, never made it to his mother; instead it was exhibited at The Third Line in 2009 and was the starting point of a three-year study into the reinterpretation of still life. The Arrangement was its culmination but not the end of his investigation.
"My current series explores portrait painting in the same way. That and the still life are two of the most over-used and cliched subjects in art history, and that is how they are linked."
His solo show is planned for the main space in the same gallery in December and unusually, every piece has already been sold - he is working, like a traditional portrait painter, on a solely commissioned basis.
He laughs when he looks back on his artistic progression. "When I think of myself as a painter, I don't think of myself as a figurative or a flower painter," he says. "It's certainly not what I set out to do, but somehow I ended up here.
"That's the great thing about art - you wake up in the morning thinking you will make an abstract painting and by night you end up painting a hot pink flower. I allow myself to go wherever the art work takes me."
Anna Seaman is The National's visual arts reporter.
ź The Arrangementruns at the Project Space at The Third Line until July 31. For more information, visit www.thethirdline.com.