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Amir H. Fallah: Investigating Representation in the History of Western Art

Internationally recognized artist Amir H. Fallah is known for his vibrant figurative work that draws from western painting vocabulary and turns the history of portraiture on its head. The work explores how one reconstructs identity and asks the question, how do you describe someone without showing their physical likeness? It’s incredibly powerful work that is also personal. In this interview, Amir talks about his background, how he began creating his current work, and his recent public pieces that were unveiled in California.

Amir H. Fallah received his BFA in Fine Art & Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art and his MFA in painting at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions across the United States and abroad. Selected solo exhibitions include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson; South Dakota Art Museum, Brookings SD; Schneider Museum of Art, Ashland OR; San Diego Art Institute; and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland KS.

In 2009, the artist was chosen to participate in the 9th Sharjah Biennial. In 2015, Fallah received the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant. In 2019, Fallah’s painting Calling On The Past received the Northern Trust Purchase Prize at EXPO Chicago. In 2020, Fallah was awarded the COLA Individual Artist Fellowship and the Artadia grant. In addition, the artist had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson, accompanied by a catalogue, and a year long installation at the ICA San Jose.

The artist is in the permanent collection of the Jorge M. Pérez Collection, Miami; McEvoy Foundation For The Arts, San Francisco; Nerman Museum, Kansas City; SMART Museum of Art at the University of Chicago; Davis Museum, Massachusetts; The Microsoft Collection, Washington; Plattsburgh State Art Museum, NY; Cerritos College Public Art Collection, CA; and Salsali Private Museum, Dubai, UAE.

Amir H. Fallah creates paintings, murals, and installations that explore systems of representation embedded in the history of Western art. His ornate environments combine visual vocabularies of painting and collage to deconstruct traditional notions of identity formation, while simultaneously defying expectations of the genre for portraiture by removing or obscuring the central figure. In Fallah’s works, the absence of the sitter’s likeness is substituted with a wider representation of their personhood—one that spans time and cultures and is articulated through a network of symbols and imagery. Fallah’s paintings question not only the historical role of portraiture, but the cultural systems that are used to identify one person from another.

When autobiographical, Fallah’s paintings employ a lexicon of symbols that amalgamate personal narratives with historical and contemporary parables. The paintings serve as a diary of lessons, warnings, and ideals providing coded insight into the formation of an identity, while investigating cultural values often passed between generations. When non-autobiographical, portraits of veiled subjects capitalize on ambiguity to skillfully weave fact and fiction, while questioning how to create a portrait without representing the physicality of the sitter. Although the stories that surround his subjects are deeply personal and are told through the intimate possessions they hold most dear, this work addresses generational immigrant experiences of movement, trauma, and celebration.

Fallah wryly incorporates Western art historical references into paintings formally rooted in the pattern-based visual language of art historical works from the Middle East. In doing so, his paintings possess a hybridity that reflects his own background as an Iranian-American immigrant straddling cultures. As seen in the artist’s tondos—circular paintings originally used in Renaissance portraiture—Fallah reinterprets classical floral paintings that entangle references to Dutch still lives and Persian miniatures. These botanicals depict flora that don’t “naturally” occur in the same ecosystem; this serves as a metaphor for immigrants that attempt to thrive in their new country, creating a new space that spans the limits of geography and disrupts the fallacy of borders.

Neither of this world or the next, Fallah’s works reside in the liminal space of being ‘othered’. The paintings utilize personal history as an entry point to discuss race, representation, and the memories of cultures and countries left behind. Through this process, the artist's works employ nuanced and emotive narratives that evoke an inquiry about identity, the immigrant experience, and the history of portraiture.




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