by Paul Laster
Summoned back to The Third Line in Dubai for a third solo show, Los Angeles-based Amir H. Fallah came up with a unique idea for making commissioned portraits—one that created the opportunity for the artist and collectors to collaborate on the content in the painting, which was pre-sold, sight unseen. Visiting the collectors’ homes, Fallah discussed the objects they own and together they picked things that revealed something special about the sitters. He veiled the collectors with fabric, photographed them in the middle of the chosen objects, and then manipulated the parts for the finished paintings—making psychological portraits that capture the essence of his subjects in their private realms. Whitehot contributor Paul Laster recently caught up with the delving artist to discuss the making of the fascinating series, which he dubs The Collected.
Paul Laster: How did you come up with the idea of collaborating with collectors for this body of work?
Amir H. Fallah: The conception of the project is pretty hilarious. For the past couple of years I had been painting portraits of friends along the same lines as The Collected. One day while working in the studio someone posted the trailer to Sasha Baron Cohen’s movie The Dictator. In the movie Sasha’s character is a Gaddafi-like dictator who lives in a grand palace. In one scene he is sitting on a throne draped in a robe with a big portrait of him hanging in the background. As soon as I saw this, a light bulb went off and I started to think about the history of commissioned portraiture and what would it look like if I did one. I realized that taking my painting process and applying it to a commission would produce some interesting results. Up until that time I had known everyone that I painted, so the idea of stepping into a collector’s home and going through their things intrigued me. So I guess I owe it all to Sasha Baron Cohen. This project is proof that you can be inspired to do interesting work by watching mediocre comedies.
Laster: Had any of the collectors previously acquired your work?
Fallah: Yes, about half the collectors owned my work and the other half were new collectors. One collector told me that he had been following my work for a while, but—for whatever reason—hadn’t purchased it until this opportunity came around. He was intrigued by the idea of collaborating with an artist, as well as the risk of commissioning a work of art that he didn’t have any control over.
Laster: What was the level of engagement that you had with them?
Fallah: It varied from collector to collector, but what I love about this series is that it allows me the opportunity to really get to know the collectors. Most of the time you meet collectors at openings or fairs. You shake their hand and say a few pleasantries. With The Collected I got to know them in-depth and learned about their lives. It gave me a greater understanding of what they collect and why. Most were very open with their homes and time. I think it takes a certain type of person to agree to this project. They definitely are not driven by vanity. If anything everyone involved is left a bit vulnerable, which I think is exciting. It creates an element of risk to a tradition that is usually tame.
Laster: Did you choose the objects or did they?
Fallah: It’s collaborative. We usually start by going from room to room in their home and casually chatting. I might pick up a vase and ask them where they got it. One object leads to the next and before I know it they tell me their life story. Some collectors got very into the process and had piles of objects ready for me when I came over. Others were more spontaneous and curious to see what I responded to in their homes. I make it a point to go after the more mundane objects that they live with. I’m not looking for luxury goods. I’m looking for the debris of life that we all surround ourselves with.
Laster: Without naming names, what was the oddest thing that transpired?
Fallah: I was in Dubai meeting with a collector who had recently moved there from Afghanistan. She ran to her desk and brought me her favorite coffee mug that she uses everyday. As soon as I saw the cup I recognized it. It is a one of a kind cup designed by an LA ceramicist that is a close friend of mine. The collector has purchased it on a layover in LA several years ago. These cups were not mass-produced and only a few had ever been sold in LA. Not only did I own a similar cup by the same artist, I was also currently painting a portrait of him that was hanging in my studio. That cup had gone from LA to Afghanistan and ultimately to Dubai. It made the project go full circle in the most bizarre way possible.
Laster: Did you photograph the set ups and work from the prints?
Fallah: Yes, every painting is based on a photo shoot at the collector’s home. I create a still life with their objects and put the collector at the center. Once I have the photo I work in Photoshop to edit the image. Once I’m at a good place the photograph gets transformed into a line drawing that is used to create the painting. I like the image going from 3D to 2D, to line drawing, and then finally being transformed into a painting. Going through all these steps helps keep the painting from feeling too stiff.
Laster: Were they veiled when you photographed them or did you add that later?
Fallah: Yes, all of the collectors were veiled when I photographed them. When I originally started the project I was worried that some collectors might object to that, but they were very enthusiastic. I think they get a kick out of having me take all their sentimental belongings and piling them on top of their heads.
Laster: How much more did you transform the staged shot?
Fallah: I do quite a bit of altering and manipulating of the image both on the computer when I’m prepping the image and while I’m painting. I don’t limit myself to the original image. Objects are blown up, altered, colored, and shifted to make the works. I may take a small paperweight and make it five feet tall or take a pattern from the collector’s wallpaper and superimpose it on a blanket that’s draped over them. I’m not interested in creating a linear description of who they are; instead I want the paintings to be filled with a dense series of symbols and references that come together to create a new coded narrative.
Laster: Why did you decide to put them on wooden docks or stages?
Fallah: I wanted to put the figure in a psychological space rather than depict their home. I also think of the structures they are in as pedestals or stages that the objects are being placed upon. The collector becomes another object for me to move around.
Laster: What do the lines around the subjects symbolize?
Fallah: The lines or borders initially were a reference to Persian miniature paintings, which have decorative borders that were supposed to be windows into the story that is depicted within the painting. As my work evolved these borders started to become deconstructed and began to weave in and out of the painting as a sort of road map through the painting. They also create areas of simultaneous flatness and trompe l’oeil space within the painting, which is something that I interests me.
Laster: What do our possessions say about us?
Fallah: I think they say much more than the superficial things that we usually think of when we think of portraiture. Your hair color doesn’t say much about who you are, but the quilt that your grandmother made you when you were a kid is charged with decades of history, stories, and memories. I’m always suspicious of people that don’t own much. I’m not talking about items of class or wealth, but things that they have collected throughout their life. I love going into peoples’ homes, walking around, and getting to know them through the objects that they live with.
Laster: What did you learn from this process?
Fallah: The most rewarding part of this project is that I’m constantly learning new things, and being met with both formal and conceptual challenges in creating the works. Sometimes the challenge is something as simple as how do I make a rubber duck fit into a painting and other times I’m combining multiple objects in a certain arrangement to create a symbolic story about a moment or story that the collector shared with me. The element of surprise that comes with entering a stranger’s home is incredibly challenging and rewarding. You never know what you’ll come across.
Laster: How was it received by the collectors, which had already purchased their portraits?
Fallah: I have to say that the response thus far has been 100% positive. Some collectors were surprised by the parts of our discussions / visits that I connected with, but everyone so far has loved their painting. One collector couple was going through a rough personal period in their life when I photographed them. They never mentioned it to me when we first met but when they saw the finished painting they were shocked that the painting had a dark vibe to it. Their mood was subconsciously carried into the painting.
Laster: Does the series continue?
Fallah: I’m working on a few more portraits at the moment. I have a few series in mind that will be evolutions of this series. I feel like this is a project that I can continue to do for quite some time, so we’ll see where it ends up.
Amir H. Fallah: The Collected is on view at The Third Line in Dubai through January 23, 2014.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author