It is logical that the paintings of Los Angeles artist Amir H. Fallah contravene logic. They are surprisingly harmonious composites of numerous unrelated, even contradictory, parts. While his paintings involve complex layering and the deliberately distorted treatment of light—suggesting three-dimensional space—the subjects are flat. Whereas Fallah was academically trained, with an MFA in painting from UCLA, his work is infiltrated with lowbrow elements derived from the language of graffiti, rendered in a palette of electric, popping color. In his current, revolutionary series of portraits, Fallah deliberately obscures his subjects, subverting the very essence of conventional portraiture.
The artist, a self-identified hybrid of sources and ideas, attributes his comingling of contradictory approaches in part to his multi-cultural experience growing up. As a young boy in the 1980s, Fallah and his parents came to America after leaving Iran. While waiting for their U.S. visas they stayed in Turkey and Rome, where Fallah was captivated by the museums they visited. Arriving in America, he became a skateboarder. As a natural offshoot of skateboarding culture, street art entranced him when he later attended art school, but Fallah draws inspiration from various other influences besides 1980s skateboard graphics and graffiti. His array of references also includes Persian miniature painting, Golden Age Dutch and Flemish painting, Henry Rousseau and Francis Bacon.
Fallah’s current focus on portraiture is a natural evolution of his varied interests. His latest body of work delves into the immigrant experience with a series of portraits that are both innovative and counter-intuitive. In them, the artist presents beguiling biographical details about the figures represented, while hiding their faces. “I cover the face with some sort of fabric, a blanket, a sheet, anything just lying around, as a way to conceal their age, their sex, their physical features, so you’re forced to focus on everything else. It’s this complicated coded language that tells you who the person is,” Fallah said during a private walk through of his recent exhibit, A Stranger in Your Home at Shulamit Nazarian gallery (September 23 – November 4, 2017).
The genesis of the series is rooted in events from Fallah’s personal life. One day, when his wife was doing laundry, he playfully draped a piece of fabric over her head, covering her face. The moment was an epiphany, presenting a way to conceive a portrait in a less literal and formal way. “I’m not really interested in what people look like because I don’t think that tells you much about who they are as a person. It’s a very superficial read of someone. I’m more interested in people’s histories, their backgrounds… just based on seeing someone you jump to all these conclusions that are always wrong,” he said.
The concept became more pertinent in January 2017 after Fallah travelled to Tel Aviv for an exhibit. When he arrived, he was interrogated for four hours, because even as a U.S. citizen, his passport shows he was born in Iran. On his departure from Israel, he was interrogated again. Eager to return home to friendly soil, he landed the day after President Trump decreed his first travel ban. Fallah was held in a room of “brown people” after border control officers noted he was born in Iran and had just returned from Israel. He was released after a couple of hours with no explanation, missing his connecting flight. “So I started thinking about my place in the world, what home means, where is home?” Fallah said.
The portraits explore these questions with indirect eloquence. Rather than tying identity to a face, Fallah visits the homes of his subjects and looks for things that reveal details about their lives. “I might pick up a couch cushion and say, ‘Where’d you get this from?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, my mom did that needlepoint pillow and I’ve had it for 20 years.’ So this inanimate object becomes a vessel for this long story… It’s almost like an archaeological dig of people’s lives.”
Like the needlepoint pillow, the objects are narrative clues, intended to portray the person under the veil. A Nike shoe in the foreground of In Transit (2017), denotes the subject’s love of basketball. The objects—things like decorative vases and family heirlooms—all have significance to their owners. Photographs and jewelry appear in many of the paintings, “constants of the immigrant experience,” said Fallah. “Even if they left in the middle of the night in a hurry, they grabbed some jewelry, and they brought some photos, reminders of their old home… I wanted those objects woven into this kind of chaotic motif.”
The compositions are also filled with dramatic and profuse foliage, which for Fallah is symbolic and often stands in for figures. “In all the backgrounds of the figurative works, I wanted an element that was alive and chaotic, to reference the chaotic nature of life,” he said. “Dropping everything and moving somewhere else, there’s a lot of chaos involved.”
Fallah’s mellifluously orchestrated chaos, combined with elements from his seamless and sophisticated mash-up of influences, manifest a cohesive and stunning vernacular all his own.