Amir H. Fallah Deconstructs The Portrait

I interviewed Amir H. Fallah at The Third Line the day before his show, The Collectedopened. The portraits were still covered in heavy plastic leaning against the powder white gallery walls as nonchalantly as hipsters wait at a bus stop in super expensive, perfectly scuffed ankle boots. Amir had flown in from Los Angeles and was nonchalant too—a bald guy with a very attractive brain, dressed in glasses and a worn black t-shirt.

I confess that I have long been one of Amir’s groupies. His daily art blog, Beautiful Decay, was born as a zine in a garage and is now famous for calling attention to alternative artists who do what they love because an obsession has infected them like a virus. He rarely mentions Beautiful Decay in interviews and I gather that out of modesty, he keeps the mag and his art separate, but they both have the same cluttered collage vibe and an aesthetic that appreciates the surprising beauty in the discarded and the everyday.

The Prince of Pret a Porter, 2013. Acrylic collage, pencil, oil, paper mounted to canvas

The Prince of Pret a Porter, 2013. Acrylic collage, pencil, oil, paper mounted to canvas

The Collected is a play on traditional portraiture, that stuff that may have made you doze off in Art History 101, as in a darkened room the professor droned on about some double-chinned duchess, patroness of the arts, and the symbolism of her high strung lap dog and perfumed attendants. In the old days, the patron would hold all the power over an artist, controlling the painting’s style and outcome entirely as well as the purse strings that held the cash-money that kept the artist out of the poor house and out of controversy with the church.

Amir turned the tables 180 and approached eight prominent collectors of his work and asked them to commission a portrait. Once they agreed, he would visit their homes for what he refers to as an “archaeological dig through their lives.” The collectors would show him special photographs, musical instruments, sneakers, a camera—whatever elements of material culture they believed best defined them. The caveat was that after this short collaboration, the patrons would not be able to have any weigh in on the work or even so much as see the finished painting until the opening.

The Triangle in the Shattered Square, 2013. Acrylic, collage, pencil, oil, on paper mounted to canvas.

The Triangle in the Shattered Square, 2013. Acrylic, collage, pencil, oil, on paper mounted to canvas.

Detail from The Triangle in the Shattered Square

Detail from The Triangle in the Shattered Square

Detail from The Triangle in The Shattered Square

Detail from The Triangle in The Shattered Square

He told me, “I’m trying to turn the idea of an art show on its head. Throughout history, commissioned portraiture was about these wealthy patrons having themselves immortalized and having their ideal image of themselves depicted. The artist didn’t have any creative freedom. In this case it’s about the patrons putting their full trust in me as the artist.”

The result was most unexpected. Patrons in body stockings, surrounded by wild patterns like leopard print, reclining amidst the things that best define them and the modern age in which they live—everything from an iPad and sneakers to a camera and a piano. The collections of objects reminded me of the artifacts recovered from the tombs of ancient Egypt. Here’s how he explains the importance of the clutter: “I’ve always been interested in mundane objects, which are charged with a lot of sentimentality. I’m not interested in luxury objects, but just the stuff that people live with every day. It started with a fascination with the trinkets and knickknacks in my mom’s house. I wanted to deconstruct the idea of the portrait.”

Rays of Eternal Union, 2013. Acrylic, collage, pencil, oil, on paper mounted to canvas

Rays of Eternal Union, 2013. Acrylic, collage, pencil, oil, on paper mounted to canvas

It was impossible to tell the gender of the subjects and this was deliberate on Amir’s part. Perhaps in an effort to protect the collectors’ identities he covered their bodies completely, including shrouding faces. However, when I asked him if the veils had any reference to religion he said, “I’m aware of the reference but that is not the thesis of the work,” claiming that no one in Dubai seemed to mind, though he got many questions about this in Los Angeles. While I appreciated the androgynous intentions of the series and his belief that the work’s potency depended on blurring the patrons’ identities and gender, I actually found this answer to be a bit of a cop out. This is the fourth Dubai show I’ve seen in 6 months in which subjects (usually women) are completely covered and the artists unanimously deny any religious reference. I think there are other clever, less charged ways to cover someone’s face if that’s what is needed for a piece to succeed.

The most marvelous treat was in store for me at the end of the interview. As we discussed Amir’s passion for combining collage with paint, he casually invited me to run my fingers along the surface of one of the canvases to feel the texture for myself. As someone with a major #artcrush on Amir’s work, it was thrilling to be able to physically touch his work and appreciate the fine technique he had used to meld together collage and create a raised effect so sophisticated it was nearly imperceptible.

Meditations on Future Relics, 2013. Acrylic, collage, pencil, oil, on paper mounted to canvas

Meditations on Future Relics, 2013. Acrylic, collage, pencil, oil, on paper mounted to canvas

Good Ideas: The Collected will run at The Third Line through 23 January. For more information go here.

You can read Beautiful Decay and quickly fall in love with artists here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Amir H. Fallah and The Third Line