Amir H. Fallah tells us how he’s changing Portraiture and opens up about his artistic process.
The founder of Beautiful/Decay reflects on the evolution of his artistic growth, which is rooted in Death Metal, skateboarding and graffiti. While he maintains a focus on his artwork, the ‘zine that he started in 1996 has functioned like a palimpsest filled with years of changing aesthetics and ideas, but Fallah’s desire to feature the handmade quality of his work has remained constant.
Installation Magazine visited Amir H. Fallah’s studio as he was preparing to pack up his works and send them off to Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco. He was also preparing for his departure to Dubai, the first of many trips this year to visit the Third Line gallery, who will host two exhibitions for the artist.
On the wall of your studio you have several large-scale portraits and some of them are accompanied by a small machete adhered to the wall. The compositions are of domestic items like couches, blankets, plants, and articles of clothing that have been arranged in a way that resembles a fort. Random objects are placed together to serve as the architecture for the paintings. The construction of these paintings seems rather elaborate and intensive, first cataloging objects, arranging them, and then creating a composition on canvas. What preliminary work is completed before you can begin painting?
It’s taking the convention of traditional portraiture and putting it back in the artist’s hands. The paintings are all based off of photographs that I take of the collectors in their homes and they don’t see the actual painting until it’s finished. They have no idea what it’s going to look like. You see a lot of invented, manipulated and intuitive decisions in these paintings, so they have no idea what they’re going to get, so at the opening it’s a complete surprise. They could actually hate the painting, but they paid for it already. I take a photo, cut out the background, put into Photoshop and create a kind of pedestal/stage environment. It’s all based on reality but the image in its infancy is tweaked and then I move things around, take things out and add them. I’ll go throughout their house and take photos of other objects that aren’t in the initial photograph and I’ll take those additional objects and paint them in later.
In our previous special issue 20+20 we explored the influence of the environment on an artist’s practice, specifically the differences between photographers in Los Angeles and New York. In creating commissioned portraits, why is it important to you to include personal objects? In a way the portrait not only captures the collector but also captures facets of domesticity and objects of a personal and sentimental nature.
The whole concept is that I wanted to paint a portrait of someone through the objects that they surround themselves with. I try to reveal as little information about what they look like, who they are, and if they’re white or black, male or female. I want the mundane, the everyday debris of life to inform who they are.
It also speaks to a phantom impression that we leave behind- an unmistakable and identifiable mark of evidence that we have interacted with these objects.
I’m looking for the baseball hat of their favorite baseball team, the cushion they put their head on everyday from the couch, their favorite blanket, sometimes their pets. Things that are not just superficial objects that we keep around because it looks cool, but has some sort of connection and tells a story.
You’re working with a very classical framework using the still life and the portrait as a means to further explore your practice.
I am trying to take these two traditional modes of image making- floral still life and portraiture- two art history staples and bring new life into them. The reason I started covering people was I wanted to abstract the figure as much as possible. How much I could I abstract the human figure and still have it read as a figurative painting?
There is a great deal of surface tension in your work. What materials are you applying?
On a formal level I want the paintings to appear like they have depth and are completely flat and graphic. A lot of times when people see one of my paintings, they feel that they’re super flat, almost like a decorative illustration. I like the fact that when you see them in person you realize they’re tactical, handmade objects. There’s craft in there, there’s collage. So the floorboards there in that painting, that a collage of faux floorboards that I made.
How did you create that effect?
I painted a piece of paper orange, then I took an actual piece of wood and then put wet paint on top of it. I used a darker color and pressed this paper onto the wood and just peeled it off. So all the bumps and knobs create this pattern so it’s monoprint. Sometimes the collage elements are handmade and sometimes they’re digital printouts of an actual image from the collector’s house that I print on archival paper and collage it. So I really like the idea that from far away you can’t tell what’s handmade, what’s photographed, and then as you get closer you start engaging in it in a different way.
We’ve discussed the objects that are incorporated in the commissioned portraits but what about your environment inspires you?
Well, obviously art inspires me. I trade a lot with my friends. I don’t buy a lot of artwork but I’m constantly trading with friends so having my peer’s artwork in my house really inspires me. Everything inspires me: from graphic design, to graffiti, to Persian Miniature painting. I’m obsessed with cacti and succulents; my house is covered in them. Living in Southern California inspires me. There isn’t like one thing- my paintings aren’t about one thing and also my interests are really diverse so I’m interested in skateboarding, punk rock, death metal, indie rock, and graphic design. I have interest ADD and I think an interesting correlation with the paintings is there’s such a wide array of references cultural and historically, and also materials I use and the way I make marks. There’s colored pencil, ink, oil, acrylic, collage, digital printouts and I think that’s a nice metaphor for my interests.
Your desire to retain evidence of the handmade in your artwork emerged in 1996 when you founded Beautiful/Decay. While you started the magazine as a need to fulfill the culture that was missing in your the suburbia that you grew up in, the publication also serves as a portfolio of your work and archives your interests.
When I started it was a black and white punk-zine with some art and graffiti in it. As it kind of turned into a real thing over the years, the editorial content was still the same. I saw it more as a reference tool or a resource for myself and it was very self-indulgent. Beautiful/Decay started before there were blogs and the internet and there were a lot of artists whose work I loved but you couldn’t do a Google search on them. You would have to go to their show in New York or LA, so I wanted to read interviews with these people that were my heroes, so that’s really why I started it. The tone of the magazine very much like two close friends talking rather than a publication like Artforum where it’s a critical academic voice. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted it to be like a studio visit with a friend.
Your color palette is really electric and vibrant. Did skateboard culture influence your use of colors?
I grew up skateboarding and from that I got into graffiti and through graffiti I got into fine art. So skateboarding and graffiti are just covered in color- from t-shirts graphics, skateboard graphics, graffiti- there’s poppy, candy coated colors and that’s where I learned colors from and I learned it very intuitively. When I think of colors I don’t think of them in the sense of mixing oil paint and mixing colors together. I think about applying flat color on top of each other, kind of how a graffiti writer uses a spray can and usually you put hard edge color on top of each other or next to each other to create an image rather than blending them in the traditional sense, so that’s how I paint. Everything is painted from the back to the front. Everything will get painted outward, coming towards the viewer and stacked on top of one another where a traditional painter, even if they work in acrylic, they’re going to blend colors and they’re not going to go from the back to the front. I think that’s what makes the paintings look electric because the color gets more intense as it’s coming toward you visually.
What process do you employ in building a composition from back to front?
There is no “undo” button. I’m not interested in making slick painting. That’s one of the reasons why I use collage because I feel like collage turns the parts where it’s imperfect into a glitch in the system and I’m interested in the handmade quality. I don’t want these to be perfect looking; I want you to see my hand. I’m struggling when I’m making these. I sit a painting down for like two weeks and I’m frozen in fear of what the next move is because the way I paint I can’t go back and fix it because the background is completely finished. If I mess it up it’s really hard to fix it. The skin is painted in oil paint and is the very last thing I do because there’s so much paper collage and oil paint rots paper. I have to do the entire paper; seal the entire painting so all the paper has a transparent coating and then paint the oil painting for the skin. So if I mess up on the skin, if oil paint drips on the part that’s acrylic, I can’t clean it up. So I just came up with this wacky way of painting. I don’t want to say it’s a wrong way to paint but it’s a weird process, you know?
How important is it for you to receive feedback on your work?
There’s two of my friends, one of them is named Wendell Gladstone and there’s Asad Faulwell. The more we hang out, the more I realize that there’s a really interesting dialogue between our works. I was telling them the other day that we should do a three-person show together so you could literally see the conversations we’re having throughout our paintings. I just realized that’s a really cool connection between our works, even though it’s different.
Has cultivating dialogue always been part of your process?
I remember in grad school some people would keep their studio doors shut and I’m not like that at all. The postman comes and I’m like ‘c’mon on! What do you think? Give me some tips!” I think that’s why most artists make work and show it. I get just as excited when the mailman likes a painting as a museum curator. I try to make the paintings so there’s very different layers, so if you just want to like it on a superficial level like ‘wow, there’s pretty colors in it,’ I’m ok with that. I like pretty colors, too. But then if you’re an art history buff and you start seeing these relationships to the tradition of Figurative Painting and traditional Portraiture, it’s in there. Or if you want to go the social route and go ‘oh you’re Middle Eastern so this references Middle East prophets whose faces were always hidden or how women cover their hair.’ I’m ok with that, too. It’s in there.
What are your plans for your upcoming exhibit The Collected at Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco? The show opens March 14 and runs until April 27, 2014.
I’m going to do a wall painting. It’s going to be a floral line drawing on a light grey wall so it will be a contour drawing. It reference Rococo and Renaissance wallpaper and wall tapestry. I’m going to hang some really low to the ground and then hang some high, because I want to encourage people to get down on their knees and look down and then get on their tippy toes. That’s how I want them to interact with my paintings. I want people to get up close; I really want to pull people in.
Your solo show at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai sounds like it will be quite an event, unveiling commissioned portraits for the first time in the presence of the patrons. What keeps you inspired?
I find I learn more about myself and my work by meeting with a peer. I’ve had instances where I’ve had studio visits with a friend of mine and they‘ll say something that completely changes the course of my work and what I’m making, how I’m making it and completely shatters all of my beliefs. I get really excited about what people are making now. Sometimes people romanticize what was happening back-when, yesteryear, I’m really excited about right now. I’ll walk into a gallery and see someone’s work that blows me away and I can’t wait to go back home and paint.
Featured image: Amir H. Fallah, The Laws of Order (detail), acrylic, collage, colored pencil on paper mounted to canvas, 5′ x 6′, 2012
All images © of the artist