By Anna Nelson
Amir H. Fallah, L.A.-based Artist Lab Resident at 18th Street Arts Center, presents “Perfect Strangers,” a project that explores the nature of self and the role of objects in our expressions of identity. The residency and exhibition is a site-specific collaboration with youth in Santa Monica and is sponsored by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Fallah has been working at 18th Street since January with Santa Monica College art students Lili Raygoza, Saba Hakimi and Melika Abikenari, and a crowd of local kids, resulting in an installation that is, in the artist’s words, a “meditation on what it means to transition from a teenager to an adult and all the stress, excitement and uncertainty that goes with it.” “Perfect Strangers” combines painting, installation, sculpture, and audio elements to question the roles of artist and subjects, as Fallah’s subjects take an active role in their own portrayal, and even speak for themselves. In the process of collaboration, Fallah’s investigation of youth and individuality has been altered and personalized by the youth with whom he interacts. The exhibition will be on view in 18th Street’s main gallery until March 27th, with a public reception on Saturday, February 21st at 6pm.
Born in Tehran and raised in Virginia, Fallah attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and later came to UCLA for his MFA. His background in graffiti and use of vibrant repeating patterns visually mark his approach to portraiture and still life alike. Many of his portraits have explored the idea of using personal possessions as signifiers of a subject’s identity and narrative, usually expressing these symbols of selfhood without reference to the subject’s face. His work has been shown from New York to Dubai, where he shows at The Third Line, with recent shows at LA Louver, JOYCE gallery in Hong Kong, and Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco. Concurrent with the exhibition at 18th Street, Fallah will open a related exhibition, “From Primitive to Present,” at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown on February 28.
Based around objects of significance found at an estate sale, the project at Charlie James “looks backward in time at a family that has for the most part, lived life to completion,” says Fallah, who means to highlight the material presence of strangers’ lives, accumulated over generations. Among the personal items Fallah found at the estate sale were home videos, diaries and hundreds of sentimental or significant objects, which together build a fragmented image and narrative of a family. As the artist puts it, “after you’re gone, that’s it. The only thing left is all your stuff.” These items are “the detritus of people’s lives,” leaving behind an idea or a remainder of the person, without their voice.
For the Artist Lab show, Fallah “thought it would be interesting to do the exact opposite: a series of portraits of people looking into the future.” The culmination of the past few months of work is an installation made up of three key elements: a large “portrait fort” at the center of the gallery, a vibrant wall painting stretching the length of the room with repeating textile patterns, and a series of paintings. From a distance, the fabricated “fort” structure on a platform in the middle of the room looks like a handmade shelter or perhaps fortress of unknown weight or material, constructed of rough planks, and haphazardly assembled. On closer inspection, the structure is revealed to be fully covered in printed paper, mimicking the texture of lumber without revealing the real means of construction. A glowing light and the sounds of voices emanate from the low entrance to the “fort.”
The conception of the structure and its contents was a joint project between Fallah and Lili Raygoza, Saba Hakimi and Melika Abikenari, three art students in their second year at Santa Monica Community College. He explains, “Most of the aesthetic decisions for the structure came from formal concerns and depended on how much space was needed.” Primarily, the collaborators “knew that the structure was going to need to hold three paintings,” to represent Raygoza, Hakimi, and Abikenari, respectively. Each student chose “the color palette, structure design, selections of objects that went into the paintings, and the painting shapes.” Fallah’s paintings are accompanied by recordings of the students’ voices, describing experiences of relocation, assimilation, and artistic curiosity. Fallah wanted to address “a pivotal point in their lives where all three are about to apply to four-year art schools. A lot of the dialogue revolved around anxieties and hopes for their artistic careers and their longing for success.”
In the gallery space, the expansive presence of the mural is immediately evident to the viewer. Smoothly undulating paisley and golden stripes stand in high contrast to the solid weight of the central structure. The mural looks like a single draped fabric, but combines pattern elements from each of the three students, borrowed from meaningful articles of clothing. “A big part of all my work is about how our clothes and the things we all live with are used as personal and cultural signifiers. People dress like how they want the world to see them,” explains Fallah. Like the voice recordings, the combination of patterns is “a mashup… [the students] are each from a slightly different culture, and these three patterns don’t historically go together. All three are immigrants, so this is a hybrid pattern.”
Inside the structure, the portraits, arranged in a triptych, are richly textured and intricately rendered with the kind of elaborate and careful details that draw a viewer in close. Unlike the wall painting, these are relatively small. They feel like family portraits, intimate and expressive. The paintings are arresting in their visual complexity, saturation of color, and pure beauty, but at the same time they are unsettling, ambiguous rather than decorative. The disconnect between the person, the property, the cultural heritage and the futuristic forms makes us question our assumptions about truth and representation. Together with the voice recordings, the experience is meant to be a deconstructed one, and ultimately “you’re not sure who’s saying what, it’s a little disorienting.”
Another aspect of the project is the red sculpted clay busts that rest on platforms and ridges around the sides of the main structure. These faces are the result of Fallah’s invitation to youth between the ages of 5 and 14 to envision and sculpt their own “future face,” however surreal or humorous. Meanwhile, Fallah asked another group of students from an art class at Crossroads high school to instead cover their faces for a photographic diptych. In one photo, fifteen ninth graders stand in rows, class-photo style, “with an object or piece of clothing with strong emotional attachment, covering their faces.” In the other, they pose individually, as if for the yearbook, covering their faces with “journals, or football jerseys…one held a teddy bear.” In playing on the theme of high school yearbooks, Fallah deconstructs our preconceptions of youth and adolescence, questioning self-representation rather than representing the idealized picture of youth that one normally percieves.
The Artist Lab residency at 18th Street Arts Center has given Fallah a chance to expand his scope. He says, “the best thing about it was, because it was a flexible residency, it allowed me to expand into different media and things I don’t usually do.” He adds, “material-wise I’ve been able to expand; this show has a found piece, a photo, and a wall painting. I was able to collaborate with youth and the students, and I worked with a lot of people in the community.” Overall, Fallah hopes that visitors to the exhibition will relate to the deconstructed interviews and the anxieties that these young artists face, and wants the experience “to be a contemplative space that viewers can go in and meditate on what it means to be a young adult.” The objects and textiles that surround each of us are imbued with potential, and characterized by each of our involvement in our own portrayals of identity, becoming ways in which we speak about and for ourselves.