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Just before the winter holidays, Amir H. Fallah spoke with us from his Los Angeles studio. He had recently become a father and was fresh from finding out that he had won the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant for painters and sculptors. Last year was a busy one for the painter, with solo shows at the Nerman Museum of Art in Overland Park, Kansas; the 18th Street Art Center in Los Angeles; and Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles.
Fallah’s intricate paintings question traditional portraiture, obscuring subjects under piles of fabrics and objects present in their home. The artist captures a “realer” portrait of sorts, by framing a person with the stuff they surround themselves with. We spoke with Fallah about that “The Collected” series of portraits, his interest in obscure Dutch garland paintings, and his growing fascination with Henri Rousseau.
WHITEWALL: You had three solo shows in 2015 and were in several group exhibitions. That’s a lot to fit into one year! Do you have a chance for a break, or are you working on something new?
AMIR H. FALLAH: Yeah, this year was crazy. And I haven’t taken a break. I had a couple of commissions for this ongoing portrait series that I’ve been doing, and I’ve been making work for a couple of art fair solo booths for Gordon gallery and also Shulamit Nazarian.
WW: How did your ongoing portrait series “The Collected” begin? Why did you want to make portraits without showing a person’s physicality or likeness?
AHF: I started painting these portraits of friends and acquaintances, maybe five years ago. I would go to their homes and I would create a still life with all their belongings, clothing, and objects—all from their home. The idea was instead of doing a painting of their physical likeness, it would be a portrait of objects they surround themselves with. Portraiture is very misleading. Historically, portraiture was propaganda, creating this illusion of who this person was. I wanted to try and take a lot of that out of portraiture and see how much of the body I could remove, yet still describe that person. I focused on mundane things, things we all live with that we have either historical or emotional connections to but aren’t necessarily of real value.
Then I did the “Collectors” project, where I thought, “What would it be like to paint a portrait of someone I didn’t know at all, and that person was an art collector?” So I created a contract with these collectors where they would buy the painting upfront, sight unseen, and then I would photograph them in their home, take those images back to my studio, and a year later, the first time they would see it would be at the opening of the show.
WW: With collectors, I imagine there must have been less mundane, more superficial objects to parse through. Were you surprised by any of the interactions or objects that you found?
AHF: This one collector had a smashed iPad he kept. He had enough money to buy a new one, so I asked, “Why have you kept this smashed iPad?” He said, “Well, I’m going through a divorce right now, and one night when I was really angry with my wife, after she moved out, I was upset. I threw the iPad across the room and shattered it.” He told me he kept it as a reminder. So this broken piece of technology was embedded with all this history and anger, and I looked at that object in a completely new way.
And then I started doing portraits where I won’t meet the person, going to estate sales and trying to create a portrait from just the objects, having never known the person or family. So I get to where a more investigative hat, which I didn’t get to with the other work.
WW: So how does Henri Rousseau come into the next series you are working on?
AHF: I thought it would be interesting to do a portrait of an artist I admire but I don’t know anything about. I started looking into Henri Rousseau. He really was an outsider, he wasn’t accepted into the academy, he died broke and penniless. Picasso threw this famous party for him, but he was actually making fun of him. He had this huge chip on his shoulder because he wanted to belong. If you research any images of him, he is always wearing a beret, he always has a palette in his hand, he’s overcompensating to dress the part of a real artist.
He’s famous for his jungle paintings, and they were based on these stories he used to tell everyone about how he was in the French military and he would go on exotic safari in Mexican jungle. If you look at a lot of those paintings, the natives are charcoal black, not brown. They look strange. And if you look closer at his paintings, all the flora is from different parts of the world. None of it is from Mexico. He’ll have in one painting cacti next to a palm, next to something you would find in a rainforest. Come to find out, when he died, in his home they found all these ticket stubs from the local botanic garden in Paris, and they realized all of these paintings are complete fiction. He had barely even been in the military, and he had never left Paris. The paintings were completely fictitious. To me, reading that, I felt like I had won the lottery. It is so fascinating to me. So much of artmaking is about creating this alternative universe for your work to live in, and he was doing that. These paintings were more surreal than anything, completely fabricated.
And so what I’m doing for this show is I’m taking parts of his biography of his life and mixing them with certain aspects of his famous paintings. I’m doing a lot of paintings with jungle, and landscapes, but it’s not so direct. There’s a lot of imagery dealing with stages and theatrical sets, curtains being pulled aside. It’s the first time I’ve done paintings that could be considered pseudo-landscapes. I call them portraits still, these new images that deal with his life and work. And in some of them I even interject my own biography.
WW: We were wondering, after working so long within this idea of portraiture or the meaning of portraiture, were you ever tempted to do a self-portrait?
AHF: I have done a couple small ones, really small, 24 inches. They are not studies, but I’m kind of easing my way into it. I do think that that’s something that I want to investigate further, because I do think it’s interesting to turn the camera back around on myself.
One project that I want to do is what would be a show where the show is a self-portrait, but there is no painting of me. How do I describe myself through things or experiences I surround myself with? I’m really trying to stretch the definition of what portraiture is or can be, taking that history and turning it on its head and creating an anti-portrait, in some way. I’m interested in deconstructing portraiture, deconstructing the body. I’m interested in abstraction just as much as I am interested in representation.
WW: While you haven’t done landscapes before, you do have a series of still lifes you’ve done, a series called “The Arrangements.” Is that something you’ll continue to do?
AHF: I’m reading a book right now that is about this very niche, not even really a movement, that happened during the Dutch Golden Age. I stumbled across these paintings called garland paintings. Hardly anyone has heard of them. I found one book, by one art historian on the East Coast. They are these circular or oval novelty paintings. Around the painting is a circular garland of flowers, and in the center is usually a portrait or religious painting. They were collaborative. There were painters that would specialize in the garland part, and different painters that would specialize in the portraits. There are only about a hundred of them by various people in the entire world. I want to make a body of work about these garland paintings, and what is interesting to me is that the artists were collaborating on them; they each had distinct roles. I found that part to be really fascinating.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s spring 2016 Art Issue.