whitehot | November 2011: In Conversation with Amir H. Fallah
Amir Fallah, Training for the Infinite Recline
There’s a strong link to graffiti in Amir Fallah’s work. Elements in Fallah’s paintings are arranged like tags in graffiti, where the letters act as characters that do things like smoosh the other letters or rest on each other - there is some of that same sensitivity to calligraphy (for lack of a better word) in his paintings. He practiced graffiti for twelve years, and while he doesn’t write on walls anymore, it shines through in his artwork.
That’s a colorful way to explain Fallah’s aesthetic, which has a genesis in claiming urban spaces and defying property rights. Knowing a little about him, I can guess that there has been many developments to his work since he began spraying tags in Virginia. So, here’s the backstory: Amir grew up painting graffiti in Virginia, where he also founded Beautiful/Decay Magazine, he went to college at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and then to UCLA - where he studied with John Baldessari among others. He currently makes artwork, heads up Beautiful/Decay Magazine, and manages his design firm, Something in the Universe.
He works with an enormous gamut of creative people, from the thousands of aspiring artists who submit work to Beautiful/Decay’s contests, to in depth interviews with internationally respected artists. His work at B/D and SITU draws corporations, like Toyota and Canson, who make efforts to be part of the creative community. Toyota partnered with B/D to create a book about the perfect future. Canson recently decided to give grants of about eight thousand dollars worth of art supplies through B/D.
Fallah is in the middle of this swirl of activity, acting as a catalyst. He spends a lot of time making things happen for other people. In fact, I feel as though I owe him big time for giving me a chance to write for B/D. I’m not a name dropper, but when Amir comes up in conversation people in NYC sit up and pay attention, because their self-interest in piqued. What kind of person creates that sort of energy? I’d say a curious person, and a generous person. So, normally Amir would be presenting someone else’s work to you, but I’ll ask you to take a moment and consider his work.
In an age where Globalism is changing the way we live, our relationships, and the stories we tell ourselves, Fallah should have much to say. Fallah was born in Iran, and has lived on both the East and West coasts of the US. I think that the secret to understanding his aesthetic might be in understanding the way the world reveals itself to Fallah. Lyotard famously defined post-modernism as “incredulity towards meta-narratives,” and that incredulity seems to appear in Fallah’s work in the form of broken, reframed collections. In his newest body of paintings, Fallah tries to take back history, and turn it into something more personal. What are the collections of? The things we live with: shoes, plants, blankets, and furniture.
We live in an age where the industrial revolution is like a patient in the final stages of tuberculosis- apologizing to the nurses for coughing blood with a look of contrition, betraying terror mixed with resignation. At the same time the information revolution is hitting its zenith, sprinting forward like an Olympic hurdler, separating us from nature one hurdle at a time. In the distance we can spy the information age doing its best to become the age of nanotechnology, where virtual information and physical material blur into one miraculous thing. We haven’t figured out how to work in the new age yet, and we can only imagine what form labor will take. Our social institutions are outmoded, and they are trying to gather as much cash and influence as possible before they fall to earth like the Tower of Babylon. They’re hoping to land in feather beds instead of being kicked out on the street.
However, like a trusted friend, the artists are still tending the garden of humanity and making art with the same tools that Da Vinci used when he carefully coaxed the Mona Lisa into existence over the course of sixteen years. It’s good that some of us are spending our fall afternoons gathering beautiful rubbings from gravestones, waiting for the gray days of a long winter. We are hopeful that the period of transition will be short and followed by a spring.That is why Fallah is an interesting figure. He both tends to other artist’s needs, and makes his own work.
Fallah’s newest body of work is a form of portraiture, but also a form of historical painting. Fallah is painting a type of history which we all experience as a personal history. Which is just history rearranged to mean something to you and I, who may not know the original subject, but who can still see some of ourselves in the work.
Some say that the modern sense of history didn’t develop fully until the early 1800’s, which is around the time that “time” switched from being a primarily religious concept and morphed into today’s concept of days adding up to weeks adding up to years, etc… Our idea of time, the modern sense of time, is flawed when it comes to accounts of history, because, for us, time takes the form of a narrative. As anyone who pays attention to politics know, narratives are something which have to be made. Once a narrative is made it becomes an object. This object then exists in the world as part of the power structure, and people fight to “control the narrative.” In other words, in most situations there is an expectation that we will have to “stick to the story” when it comes to history. What Fallah is doing in his newest body of work is rearranging the narrative. He’s putting symbols of freedom and acceptance, panchos and crystals, where symbols of power “belong.”
Amir Fallah, The Last Sparkling Rock in the World (detail)
In The Last Sparkling Rock in the World a woman stands on a plinth. She is draped in two blankets. The blankets evoke a sense of anonymity, i.e. the figure is under-cover, and they also suggest a sort of religious gravitas. She is standing with her arm outstretched, and her eyes staring out into the distance like some forgotten Spanish mystic turned sacred martyr out of the imagination of Jusepe de Ribera in the 17th century. Surrounding the base of the plinth are jagged alizarin crimson, brown, and violet crystals forming an outline which encircles the area the figure is standing in, the crystals bring to mind various traditions and counter-cultural ideas, like the healing power of crystals, and that the crystal as a perfect structure which is both solid, beautiful and transparent. This figure is a hopeful figure.
Snaking through the painting is a glowing purple wire, which, as we follow it from the top right of the painting, we see it end in tattered, loose strings. The wire terminates with bits of glowing purple color sticking from its end like frayed rope. Behind this frayed rope there is a deep purplish and black space. We know that this space is deep because there is a faint glow of light coming from the bottom, similar to a setting sun. What is this plain space? Why would Fallah place his figure in front of this particular space, a sort of no-where, a blank space? Is the space a futuristic and hopeful space, like outer space, where humanity can expand endlessly, and live in amazing space paradises? Or is the space the interior space that happens to people when they face modernity fully. Is this particular space the giant abyss that emerges when you choose to embrace modern thought? The psychological space of no personal God and the unconscious mind – which means that no one is looking out for you, and that you aren’t even fully in control of yourself. Is this the philosopher’s space that considers the world as a representation that you experience through your senses and barely more “real” than a daydream? Is this a space that comes from a humanistic perspective? Yes, I think so. The point of this space isn’t what it represents, it could be optimistic or pessimistic, but either way it forces us to first confront the figure of the blanketed woman. I have often felt like how I imagine the blanketed woman feels, standing watch on her pedestal, separated and paranoid, yet hopeful.
I know Fallah likes to read, he has occasionally mentioned that his house is filled to the brim with books, and you have to remember that he also publishes 3 books a year with the Beautiful/Decay book series. What happens when we consider that Fallah is a bibliophile, and that he has constructed these ambivalent figures, hopeful against the unknown future/present? I think it is relevant to bring up another bibliophile, Michel Houellebecq, and Houellebecq’s quip in regards to creative people, “No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.” (from Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, (San Francisco, Believer Books, 2005). Being fed up doesn’t mean that you don’t feel enough for other people, it probably means the opposite.
Let’s look at another painting, Training for the Infinite Recline. Here Fallah paints an entirely sympathetic character, a dead person, or a person playing dead, covered in blankets. Their exposed hand and foot appear to be unarticulated like a corpse’s would, and they have a twisted quality of rigor mortis, but also call to mind the hands of Christ on the Isenheim Altarpiece, twisted in agony. The hand and foot are both casting hard shadows, as though the image was captured with a flash photograph. The sort of a photograph entered into evidence at a murder trial. However, there is another pair of limbs, the figures hidden hand and foot, which are positioned in the same way as someone trying to be comfortable while they get some rest. Is this figure dead, or just taking a nap?
The figure is on a plywood platform, underneath which we see a San Pedro cactus, a bag, and a single running shoe. Above the figure there are three bands of color, similar to the purple wire in The Last Sparkling Rock in the World, but instead of glowing these bands are covered in patterns, and only one of the three is broken. In addition there is a red plant, which looks like a red spider plant to me. What does this figure say? They are training for death. They are in front of another blue expanse of color, this one doesn’t have the glow of a setting sun, and may represent a wall, or it could represent night. Why, despite all the negative imagery does this picture seem to inspire hope? Maybe it recognizes something we all feel, and gives a voice to it. If things are hopeless, it is better to be hopeless together. In that way we can experience a type of bond with the painting.
Amir Fallah, Training for the Infinie Recline (detail)
I got to ask Amir a few questions about the work.
Bill Donovan: Amir, you expressed an interest in history, and more specifically, in these paintings you rearrange objects as a way to transform the models’ personal histories into more universal stories. Can you talk about that?
Amir Fallah: I’ve always been drawn to the small trinkets and tchotchkes that we surround ourselves with. These objects don’t mean much to others but we have deep sentimental attachments to them. A good example is my first alarm clock. My parents got a free alarm clock in the early 90’s when they signed up for a credit card and gave it to me. That alarm clock sat next to my bedside all throughout my childhood. I’ve had it for over 20 years. Even now that I’m married I can’t seem to let go of it. It’s become a lucky charm of sorts. I keep it plugged in under my bed even though my wife begs me to get rid of it. That beat up alarm clock may look like a piece of junk to most but for me it is a time capsule of memories and experiences. It’s as if the alarm clock holds all these secret narratives that only I can unlock. So when I go to other peoples homes and grab things off their shelves I often wonder what stories these objects hold and try to project my own narratives onto them. Repositioning them, changing them and rearranging the everyday objects that we surround ourselves with lets me rewrite those narratives to form a new story where I begin the story and the viewer gets to write their own ending. I also think the work has a dialogue with shrines and alters, where people place mementos, flowers, and trinkets around a statue or ruin. Sometimes these shrines are old structures that have been abstracted by erosion and time and other times they are crude representations by someone that was compelled to create an alter. I’m always thinking about what I would include in someone’s shrine? Would it be the objects that they have in their home? It might sound morbid but I think it may have something to do with the idea of people getting buried in their favorite suit. When everything is stripped away and gone you’re left with just the few things that you love.
Donovan: The bands of color, which sometimes look like fabric, and other times like glowing neon tubing, have been part of your work for a while now. When I look at them as a painter I see an interesting way to lead someone’s eye through the picture. When I look at them as someone who loves painting I see a device which makes me conscious of looking, or maybe the better way to put that is that, I become conscious of how you have decided to lead me through the paintings. Like, without being overbearing or obvious, you’ve left a clue about how to look at your painting. Can you talk about the colorful bands in your painting?
Fallah: The bands started as these embellished borders that went around the paintings. They were inspired originally by the decorative borders that you’d find in Persian miniature paintings. I read somewhere that these borders were portals into the story or narrative within the miniature. That struck a cord with me as I think most contemporary painting functions that way. I also used them as a way to trap the imagery of the work within the confines of the canvas. I don’t want the viewer to focus on what could be happening beyond the edge of the paintings. Everything that they need is on the surface stacked on top of one another ready to be decoded. Lately these borders have stopped following the edges and started to meander into the painting being both a visual guide for the eye and used as a way to break up the space. I think of them as a map of sorts taking you on a trip through the painting and making you stop at all the sites I want you to see.
Donovan: What does it mean to cover someone in blankets?
Fallah: The blankets and fabrics were just another material in the home of the individuals I was paintings. As I started the process I realized that I didn’t want these paintings to be portraits. To me the figure functions as just another object within the painting. The fabrics, objects, and blankets that I lay over/around them help me give the suggestion of the figure without allowing the viewer to focus on any distinguishable feature. I suppose it’s a way of holding a bit back from the viewer and allowing them to sort out who the figure is, if it’s alive or dead, or if it’s a real figure at all.
Donovan: The blankets seem like they could either be something you, the artist, are using to try and protect the figure. Or, conversely, the figure may be trying to protect themself from us, the viewers. I think that ambivalence is nice, and maybe you shouldn’t explain it away, but maybe you could talk about identity. Or, more broadly, what type of experience you imagine someone having in front of your work?
Fallah: Not revealing who the person is creates a layer of tension and mystery in the paintings. The paintings are not titled with the persons name and you can barely make out who they are. What is left is the suggestion of a figure and their possessions. I like to think about what type of biography you can write about someone if you only have the plants, the sheets, and a few small trinkets to go on. The act of covering the figure turns into a way to protect, hide, abstract, and forget who they are.
Donnovan: The expansive space behind the figures intrigued me. I was wondering if, again, you intentionally created a symbol which can be read in multiple ways, which also make the viewer complicit in either fantasizing about the future, or facing the grim prospects of modernity?
Fallah: I like to think of the backgrounds as psychological space in the works. Francis Bacon is one of my biggest influences and I always respected the subdued spaces in his work. It was as if he was painting the figures in his mind, contorting, screaming, and sitting uncomfortably in monotone rooms with only a single light bulb to light them. Subsequently I’m also using a non-descriptive space where anything can happen, and where the distractions of the world (both good or bad) are erased to leave us with only what’s on the surface of the painting and our imagination.
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Bill Donovan, a writer, artist and educator in New York City, completed his MFA with a specialization in painting in 2006 at the University of Iowa and will complete his MA in Art History and Criticism at Stony Brook University in 2012. Donovan is an adjunct professor of Fine Art at Adelphi University and Nassau Community College. He has been actively showing his paintings internationally since 2005, exhibiting in countries including Spain, Australia and Denmark. Mr. Donovan's writing has appeared in Beautiful/Decay, The Huffington Post and WhiteHot Magazine. You can keep up with Bill through his website:http://billdonovan.net