By Christina Nafziger
About this time last year, while finding my way through the labyrinth of galleries at Expo Chicago, I was introduced to the work of L.A. based artist Amir H. Fallah. His compositions are striking, with patterns, fabric, and objects adorning neon-colored people. I have always been a sucker for portraiture, but Fallah’s portraits left me thinking about the concept for days—traditionally, what does a portrait reveal to the viewer? Well, the simple answer is this: a person’s identity, or, who they are, often portraying a physical likeness. However, in Fallah’s paintings, the faces of his subjects are covered with vibrant fabric. This got me thinking: “What, other than a person’s physical appearance, can reveal their identity?”
In Fallah’s paintings, he renders details as complex as the ever-changing concept of identity. His compositions are filled from corner to corner with elaborate patterns: intricate, folding fabrics, and objects that belong to his subjects. All of these elements tell the story of a person, together creating a narrative. They give us a glimpse into their lives, revealing who they are. While discussing his process, Fallah says that he often thinks of himself as, “an archaeologist or amateur private eye digging into their background and life story.”
The first painting I saw of Fallah’s made a huge impression on me. In this piece, titled “Called on the Past,” he divides the composition not unlike a storyboard, and then smartly unites it again by weaving patterns throughout. In this interview, Fallah shares the story behind this piece and how the subject of identity, due to the times we are in, have for him become increasingly vital in his artistic practice.
The image of the hooded figure is repeated throughout your paintings. Is this veil meant to mask identity, or perhaps create a more universal identity that, in the absence of a face, all viewers can relate to?
I suppose it’s both. I’m interested in turning the history of portraiture on its head. How do you describe someone when his or her physical features are hidden? Physical features are often misleading so I erase them in hope of describing someone through a series of coded symbols that represent them.
You construct such intricate tableaus in your paintings, which make me wonder if your studio is filled with the same vivid hues and rich fabrics. Do you arrange these scenes using objects and models from life?
My studio is fairly empty except for painting supplies and canvases. All the paintings are based on photo shoots I do with real people. I go to their home and conduct an informal interview of sorts. We walk from room to room and discuss the objects they surround themselves with: a pillow that was made by a grandparent, a trinket that was bought during a trip, or houseplant that is barely kept alive. All these things are embedded with stories and I use them as a way to get to know my subject. I think of myself as an archaeologist or amateur private eye digging into their background and life story. I create a still life in their home with them at the center and snap a few hundred photos of the things I come across in their home. The entire process takes about an hour. It’s very quick and spontaneous. Back in the studio these images are used to make a digital collage, which eventually gets turned into a painting.
When I look at your paintings, there are specific, complex patterns, colors, plants, tapestries, etc… objects that perhaps represent a culture, or multiple cultures. Can you elaborate on these signifiers and their presence among the individuals, covering their faces?
All the objects belong to the subject in my paintings. None of it is random or superficial. They often represent a culture but not necessarily the culture that the subject is a part of. The object could have been collected on a trip or passed down as a family heirloom. This complicates the identity of the subject, which is something I’m very interested in. The paintings become a complicated mix of symbols and icons that at times contradict and cancel one another out. I think that says a lot about how complex identity is, which is one of the main interests in my work.
Congratulations on your recent solo exhibition World’s Apart at Dio Horia Gallery in Mykonos, Greece! You’ve had two solo shows this year and have one lined up for 2020 as well. Can you tell me about a career highlight of yours? Was there a moment in your career that you would consider a turning point?
It’s hard to choose because every time I have a show I feel so fortunate to have a platform to share my work. Painting is a lonely existence so it feels amazing to have your work go out into the world after working quietly in the studio for half a year. 2015 was a year of several highlights for me. I had my first museum solo show at The Nerman Museum Of Contemporary Art, which was an incredible experience. That certainly felt like a turning point. I have to say that the ultimate career highlight wasn’t a show or a sale though. There came a point a few years ago where I felt completely confident with my work. I no longer doubted the work. I felt like I finally had found what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it and now I could execute my ideas without the fear of other people’s judgements or opinions. This felt liberating as I had spent almost 25 years having doubts and anxiety about my work. I think that’s a normal reaction for a young artist to have. I’m extremely happy that now I just make what I want to make for better or worse.
You’ve been awarded numerous artist grants and fellowship throughout your career. Is there one in particular that stands out? What affect did it have on your artistic practice?
Both the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant and the California Community Foundation fellowship came at the perfect time. My wife and I had just had our son. We were going to have family move to LA to help us take care of him but that unexpectedly fell through. Nannies are expensive and without those two awards I would not have been able to work in the studio at a very critical time in my career.
I love that many of your paintings, such as Reflections Eternal and The Filmmaker’s Reflection, present the viewer with a figure reclining in a classical, Western art historical pose, but within a scene that is far from it. Can you elaborate a bit on this?
I rarely plan how I am going to pose my subjects. It is often a response to their environment. Those specific paintings have compositions that are found throughout art history. I’m certainly aware of that history but I like to think that it works its way in organically—I rarely pose a painting based on a historical painting. I usually show up and how the painting is composed comes out of our discussions as well as what their homes look like.
You are currently based in L.A., correct? How long have you lived there?
I moved to LA in 2001, when I went to grad school at UCLA. I thought it would be a three-year commitment but I never left. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. LA never gets old.
Has your work always centered on portraiture? What was your work like while in grad school?
Grad school was a confusing time for me. I was in way over my head. I went to grad school straight out of undergrad, which in hindsight could have been a mistake. I didn’t know anything about the art world and was thrust into a school where most of the students had thriving professional careers while still in school. I did a lot of experimenting and didn’t make much that I still like. I didn’t move toward figurative work until five or six years later. I only found my voice once nobody was paying attention to what I was doing. It was many years of working quietly in the studio and having conversations with myself about what I wanted to get out of the work.
On your website you mention that you also work in installation. I, myself, have only seen your two-dimensional paintings. However, I am very interested in what your installation work is like, as your paintings to me play so much on space and depth, in a way that simultaneously creates a sculptural element and also flattens the plane. Can you discuss your installation work?
I’ve done several installations over the years. Usually the installations are site specific and are spaces where paintings live in. My show at the Nerman Museum Of Contemporary art is a perfect example of how I combine painting with installation and other sculptural interventions to the space.
One of my favorite paintings of yours (and it is extremely difficult to choose just one!) is Calling on the Past. The way you have dissected the composition into windows of different scenes is almost reminiscent of a graphic novel depicting a series of events, a narrative. Can you tell us a bit about this painting, in particular the presence of the woman standing in the bottom left corner of the painting, whose face is visible to the audience?
All of the newer works I’m making break up the space of the painting using a grid system. This comes out of my experience of laying out magazine spreads for many years for an art magazine I used to publish called Beautiful/Decay. This grid system allows me to compartmentalize different aspects of someone’s life and also gives me the opportunity to place multiple paintings within one painting. I’m a maximalist so the thought of many paintings living on the same surface is an exciting idea that I’m still exploring.
The painting is a portrait of a Lithuanian American artist in Los Angeles. During our conversation she mentioned that she was always interested in Lithuanian traditional dress. She didn’t have any images of it but urged me to look into it. After many hours of research I came across a series of illustrations from the 1950’s of traditional Lithuanian dress. That image is based on the illustrations I found.
Can you speak a bit about your own experience as Iranian-American and how (if at all) it relates to or influences your practice?
Within the last two years my personal biography has become much of the content in the work. For a while I tried to tackle other themes but between Trump becoming the president, the Muslim ban, and the birth of our son, identity has come to the forefront of my work. It’s hard to make work about anything else these days. My identity and how I fit into America are shoved in my face daily so the only way I can deal with it is by making work about it. Hopefully I’m doing so in an interesting way that furthers the conversation.