Amir H. Fallah

Highland Park/LA, Painter // March 2012
I don’t want my work to be a pared down one liner that you can see, digest, and move on from. I want all my work to unravel over time.

We visited Amir at his home studio in the neighborhood of Highland Park on our last day in Los Angeles, right before our drive back up to San Francisco. He works out of a converted double garage that he uses as both a studio and office, because when not making art he’s busy with Beautiful/Decay, the contemporary arts magazine that he publishes as well as the creative think tank/design agency he recently launched called Something In The Universe. Klea and I were a bit tired from the back-to-back studio visits we had packed into our five-day stint in LA, but as soon as Amir greeted us in his driveway I knew this last visit would be fun and relaxed. Amir has a real down-to-earth, approachable demeanor that made it easy to dive right in and ask him a bunch of questions. Though he works within a range of mediums, including drawing, photography and sculpture, his studio was mainly filled with a series of very large, brightly colored, figurative paintings. These works are based on photographs he’s taken of friends in their homes surrounded by everyday objects and sentimental items. After taking the initial photographs, he edits them in Photoshop and then begins painting from them. During the process he continues to take photos, snapping shots of the painting and going back to Photoshop to rework the arrangement and play around with the imagery. These paintings are a form of portraiture, but because Amir takes a great deal of liberties with them they take on a layered dimension, creating a sense of unlimited narrative possibility. Amir’s paintings are composite works of fact and fiction that reveal the art of storytelling, and all the embellishing, improvising, appropriating, and editing that happen along the way. And like any writer, Amir uses characters to drive his story, to talk about ideas, to reveal perspective, and to try and get at some essential aspect of humanity.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I publish Beautiful/Decay and also own a boutique design firm called Something In The Universe. My time is spent half in my painting studio and half in my office in front of a computer. It’s a bit difficult juggling all of them, but they all inform one another.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work with a wide variety of mediums. 80% of the time I paint but I’ve been known to make sculpture, installations, and photographs. Often my paintings are layered— not just with paint, but I sometimes collage photos and drawings into the pieces as well. I like creating rich, layered textures that don’t easily reveal how they’ve been made so that the techniques and mediums that were brought together to create the overall look of finished works isn’t really obvious.

The inspiration for my current body of work is personal histories. I’m interested in how everyday belongings and objects that people surround themselves with tell a story and set a stage for a narrative for who they are, what things are important to them, and how they perceive the world. My wife and I go to a lot of estate sales and I’m inspired by all the objects that people leave behind after they have passed away or moved; it makes me think about how much of people’s lives can be revealed in the things they’ve chosen to assemble, and I wanted to consider and tap into this notion in my work.

I begin by creating a still life with a sitter and their personal belongings. I go over to their houses to photograph them and ask them to choose objects that are in some way meaningful or important, and sometimes I’ll just grab things that catch my eye to include for purely aesthetic reasons. Essentially, I’m creating a new story, propelled by my vision, which borrows from whatever the sitter offers up. I’m not trying to create a strict telling of other people’s stories and I don’t want these pieces to read as portraiture— the work starts with these people, but it becomes something much bigger, much broader. That’s why in most cases their faces are obscured in some way.

The photographs I take during the sitting are then used for paintings that are both manually and digitally altered. Objects are changed, rearranged, edited and finally filtered to suit my needs. By doing so I’m not only telling the sitter’s history, but I’ve also added a bit of myself to their story. The process serves as a metaphor for human history, where those who tell the story control what we see and hear. The stories change over time and take on new meaning as each person retells, edits, deletes, and alters the story over and over again.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I get a lot of inspiration with the artists that we feature in Beautiful/Decay— I like supporting young artists and designers, and I strive to keep Beautiful/Decay aesthetically interesting and educated, but not overly academic. I personally pick all the artists in the books we publish, so I think of Beautiful/Decay as a very elaborate resource tool for my own work. Luckily other people seem to like what we do with B/D so we end up collaborating, documenting, and interviewing some of the most interesting artists making work right now.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Being an artist isn’t an easy thing. You have to create something out of thin air, promote it, and try to make a living so you can make more art. Sometimes I go into the studio and it just doesn’t feel right and I have to stare at the wall for hours. I’m not sure if other professions have this problem. I can’t imagine a lawyer going into his/her office and doing nothing all day. It’s also tough because you have to rely heavily on galleries and institutions. Working with highly motivated and professional galleries is key. There are a lot of them that make empty promises and most artists are so desperate to show that they will go along with almost anything. I’ve had my share of bad experiences in the past, but luckily I’m working with some great people that believe in my work and are working with me to bring projects to fruition.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I’ve found that I need at least 400 square feet or more to really make things happen. I work in a converted double garage space that’s the perfect size. I can usually have an entire solo show up so that I can make sure the work hangs well together. In the past I would let pieces fly out of the studio quickly but now I’m trying to work in a series and keep all the work together until the series is complete. There is a powerful dialogue that begins to happen between the works that inform future pieces that really doesn’t happen for me if I only have one painting hanging. I employ so many different methods of making marks, little tricks that I’ve come up with but that I also easily forget, so it’s important to keep previous work around to reference and help jog my memory. I also like to work on one or two pieces at a time. Since late 2008 I’ve been making a series of floral still lifes. I’ve made a point to paint one of these while I’m painting a larger figurative piece. The floral pieces are more experimental and organic and act as a moment of rest. The figurative paintings are extremely detailed and laborious and can take their toll. Sometimes I spend five to six hours just painting a small repetitive pattern. After a while my mind goes numb and I have to stop what I’m doing and work on something that’s more intuitive where I can let the paint guide my next move instead of working off a photograph.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I think everything in my life informs my work. Everything I see and do finds itself into the paintings in some sort of way. Everything from the trashy reality TV shows to my frequent trips to museums works its way into my studio practice. Some people can keep their personal life out of their art but for me it’s impossible. My work is very tactile, intuitive, and at times emotional. I want people to look at my paintings and learn something about who I am, what I’m interested in, and what I’m inspired by.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
This past year was a very transitional period for my work. I started working with oil paint for the first time in 12 years and began introducing figures into the paintings. I guess you could say it was a time for experimentation. Now, I feel like I’m in a great place to start working on a few large projects and solo shows that I’m hoping will come to fruition in late 2012/early 2013.

What are you most proud of?
My parents. They instilled a “never give up” attitude in me that keeps me going during the worst of times. I face all the same problems that most of us come across but I just see them as a personal challenge to push forward.

What do you want your work to do?
I’ve always loved artwork that keeps your attention for a long period of time. I don’t want my work to be a pared down one liner that you can see, digest, and move on from. I want all my work to unravel over time. The more you look at it, the more you get back.

What advice has influenced you?
My parents came to America with $82 dollars and today live a very comfortable middle class life. They didn’t have to say much. Their actions spoke a thousand words. They never made excuses or took the easy way out. I can’t think of any one thing that anyone has said to me but the idea of never giving up is something that has greatly influenced me throughout my entire life.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I’ll probably arrive when I drop dead. If you’re an ambitious person you never really “arrive.” The next goal is always far off in the distance and you’re running towards it before you can catch your breath.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I have a few upcoming group shows in the works but nothing that I can announce just yet. My next solo show will be at Frey Norris gallery in San Francisco in March 2013. It’s a very involved project and one of my most ambitious exhibits today so I’m looking forward to spending the next year working on it.

To see more of Amir’s work: