As a young painter, Amir H. Fallah M.F.A. ’05 found UCLA’s program a bit … intimidating. Towering figures of the Los Angeles art scene — people like Lari Pittman, Catherine Opie, the late John Baldessari — would often pop into the studio and review students’ work. And then offer contradictory feedback. There were two options: feel defeated, or feel inspired. Fallah chose well.
“In the end,” he says, “I found my path.”
Now the Tehran-born sculptor and installation artist is a global phenomenon, with pieces in shows from Athens to Shanghai. Specifically, Fallah is recognized for the eccentric beauty and mysterious power of his narrative maximalism. He arrays carefully chosen scenes with veiled figures, meaningful personal and cultural objects, lush botanica, citations from pop culture, Eastern and Western visual traditions, mythology, folklore, autobiography and literature — all in a crisp, precise, detail-rich and chromatically saturated style that unifies the whole. That his work has deeper meaning is apparent from first sight; that those new meanings continue to reveal themselves in contemplation is a big part of their power.
Frequently autobiographical, but equally engaged with broader social issues and cultural dynamics anchored to his diasporic experience, Fallah’s visual lexicon has accrued and accumulated since his earliest memories. Born in Tehran in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution and overthrowing of the monarchy, he was not yet 5 years old when his family fled the country, feeling betrayed by the revolution’s false promises. They moved several times before settling in the U.S. when he was 7. Growing up in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., Fallah yearned for a more exciting cultural milieu, so in high school he started his own: a photocopied black-and-white ’zine that would eventually become Beautiful/Decay. He then headed to nearby Baltimore to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art.
The foundations of Fallah’s mature style were laid during his undergraduate studies in Baltimore, but it wasn’t until he was accepted into UCLA as a graduate student that he truly encountered the art world. “I flew out here for a tour,” he recalls, “and it just blew me away. When I went into the studios I thought, These kids are making the stuff I want to be making. It felt like all the work was museum ready, polished.”
He enrolled. In the years following that M.F.A. program, Fallah watched in despair as many of his UCLA classmates went onto major gallery and museum shows, while he looked on from the sidelines. “I was literally the only person without that,” he says with a wry smile. He finally showed in Dubai in 2005, one of the first contemporary artists to exhibit at a mainstream commercial gallery in the United Arab Emirates.
“I remember telling my teachers, ‘Hey, I got offered to show in Dubai, at The Third Line, and most people were like, ‘Where is that?’” he says. “Dubai was not what it is now. So, I had this very weird entry into the art world.”
It wasn’t his only unconventional entry point. Beautiful/Decay was a black and white ’zine Fallah created when he was in high school, then promptly forgot about. Then, in his final year in undergrad, he restarted it as a full color magazine, funded through the sale of four paintings at a group show in New York.
“I made $2,000, and I pooled it with another $3,000 that I had saved up from painting murals. And I thought, ‘What am I going to do with $5,000? I've never had so much money!’” At the time, Fallah was living in New York and would take the subway between Brooklyn and Tribeca when he would buy the magazines Artforum or Juxtapoz for the ride. “I'm 21, 22 years old and Artforum is so boring and dry. And then Juxtapoz was all tattoo art, hot rods, goth. Artforum was not accessible at all, but it was the type of art that I liked, and Juxtapoz was very accessible, but it wasn’t the type of work I liked, so … ”
Beautiful/Decay was reborn to close that divide. “I wanted to make a magazine that was accessible but informed, and bridged that gap between subcultures, popular culture and underground culture with contemporary art. Because those were my interests.”
When he moved to L.A., the magazine grew organically. By the time he graduated from UCLA in 2005, it was paying for itself. It had an office, and the publication became his day job. But it was his painting — at night, on the weekends, early in the morning — that would change everything.
Seth Curcio, a partner at the contemporary art gallery Shulamit Nazarian Los Angeles, first noticed Fallah through Beautiful/Decay. “I was in art school when the magazine made a huge impact on me,” he says. “It merged so many of my interests — art, graphic design, graffiti, music and fashion. Through the magazine I eventually learned about Amir and his artwork, and that has led to nearly 20 years of friendship and collaboration.”
Elizabeth East, a director at L.A. Louver gallery, also recalls working with Fallah during those early years in L.A., shortly after he graduated from UCLA. Two of her colleagues visited his studio and left “deeply impressed by his ambition and imagination,” East says.
And they put their gallery muscle behind him. From among more than 100 artists considered, Louver chose Fallah as one of 12 for its Rogue Wave ’07, a collection of prestigious group shows spotlighting emerging artists. “Amir’s large-scale sculpture — as well as paintings and photographs —transported visitors into a magical place,” East says. “Since then, Amir’s work has undergone an incredible evolution. And, somehow, he manages to be a lovely person at the same time.”
Eventually, Fallah chose painting over the magazine, although random copies are still available on eBay. Its influence still manifests itself in Fallah’s work, notably in the omnivorous visual references and giddy simultaneity of his compositional layouts.
“A lot of the new work I call ‘grids’ are really paintings within paintings,” Fallah says. “And I got the idea from doing magazine and book layout, and engineering this visual hierarchy where there’s a lot of information on the page, but it’s structured so that it’s not overwhelming. I’m such a maximalist. In my work, I’m always trying to talk about five things at once. This is a way to structure the chaos. It’s a direct link to my background in design and publications.”
A bow at the Fowler
In 2022 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, curator Amy Landau wanted to include Beautiful/Decay in Fallah’s first solo museum presentation in Los Angeles, a show titled The Fallacy of Borders. Fallah was resistant. He’d made an effort to distance his art practice from his publishing role.
“But she said, ‘I think you're thinking about the magazine in the wrong way. Look at your paintings. When you were putting together this magazine, you were working thematically on every issue, and you were bringing together disparate people and putting their work side by side. So having an illustrator next to Cathy Opie, and Wangechi Mutu next to Jeremy Scott — this clash of high and low, of East and West — really, it was a part of your art career.’”
He continues, “She kind of blew my mind. Curators are awesome: She revealed something to me about myself that I didn’t realize.”
It wasn’t the only way the Fowler show grew from those old magazine days. Kris Lewis, part of the interim director cohort at the Fowler and currently director of the Henry Art Museum in Seattle, first met Fallah in 2008, when she answered an ad for a marketing position with Beautiful/Decay. “I wasn’t familiar with the magazine and wondered why,” she says. “The graphic covers were exciting, the artists featured were cutting-edge, and the content was thoughtful and engaging.”
Fast forward 10 years to fall 2018 when, as part of her work for the Fowler’s Contemporary Council, Lewis reached out to Fallah to organize a studio visit.
“His visibility as an artist was rapidly increasing, and for good reason,” Lewis says. “His work is important. I was first drawn to the graphic nature and bright colors in his work. He was also conveying timely critical themes that involved race, identity, diaspora and homeland, inviting viewers to question boundaries and borders that separate people and cultures.” She then pays Fallah the greatest compliment an artist can receive: “I learned from it.”
When Lewis floated the idea at the museum of an exhibition with a local artist, Fallah was a natural fit. “Amy Landau — who prior to coming to the Fowler as the director of education and interpretation, was a curator of Islamic art — came forward and said she would curate the show,” says Lewis. “She’s a dynamo. The show [between January and May 2023] was absolutely stunning.”
A son — and a shift
So much of the conversation around Fallah’s work is keyed to a metacritique of the modern information ecosystem. But it would be a loss to discount the more personal aspects as well. Fallah was interested in, and mined in his work, multicultural perspectives such as his own Iranian American experience in an immigrant family. But when he became a parent, he started to rethink everything.
“Up until I had a kid, I was dealing with portraiture,” Fallah says, “but not specifically self-portraits. I wasn’t looking internally; I was painting other people. But once I had a son, suddenly all I was thinking about was, ‘What do I believe in? What do I want to teach this kid?’ And the work became a reflection of that. It was a turning point for me.”
One of the first manifestations of this new dynamic was a stained-glass sculptural piece for an exhibition at Shulamit Nazarian in 2017. Based on the same draped-figure motif that had become a foundation of his paintings, the piece was a self-portrait, depicting Fallah holding his infant son in a style that recalled religious art with a certain Renaissance sensibility.
Fallah has come to embrace glass, working with David Judson, president of the influential Judson Studios in Los Angeles. “We have just collaborated on our fourth project together,” says Judson, “and we have evolved with each one. Despite its being an ancient craft, new and innovative methods are being discovered daily. And Amir masterfully navigates between these old and new worlds.”
Perhaps no one has had a closer perspective on Fallah’s evolution as an artist since those UCLA days than his wife, Jessica Lopez. “It has been an interesting journey,” she says. “I feel it's gotten to this place where it’s so layered, and there’s so much meaning. It’s been really gratifying as a partner over 20 years to see him find his voice.” And yes, his identity as a dad. “It really speaks to the idea,” Lopez says, “of what values we are going to instill in our child.”
It's safe to say that fatherhood did not sugarcoat the work. “If anything, it got darker — like, really dark,” Fallah says. “I think the work now is more serious and poignant. And way more political. Because I’m thinking about the future a lot more.”
Fallah recently completed work on a botanical-themed mural celebrating local Los Angeles history at the newly refurbished Hollywood Park in Inglewood. He then traveled to China, for his first show with Gallery All in Shanghai. He has also completed two new sculptures, three-foot dimensional bronzes, further expanding his material repertoire into the classical sensibility. “It’s dealing with what it means to be approaching the second half of life,” he says. “And a lot of that pertains to being a parent, too — wondering, ‘How is this story going to end? Am I where I want to be? Have I done all the things I wanted to do? What have I not done yet?’”
Well, let’s see: He’s traveled the world, graduated from UCLA, made his parents proud, fallen in love, become a dad, created an iconic publication, and mastered painting, as well as stained glass, graphic design, metal sculpture, and murals. He shows all over the world, teaches, continues to learn. What has he not done yet, indeed?
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2024 issue.