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Three large round works feature on the entry wall leading to Remember My Child…, Amir H. Fallah’s current exhibition at Shulamit Nazarian. In each, a sumptuously detailed ring of flowers, plants, and other objects surrounds a central field of vibrant color, evocative of the dome of the heavens. Cartoon babies, beetles, and a ship with a bunch of sails interweave among the mix of imagery. My Heart Beating, My Soul Breathing (all works 2020, except as noted) even tosses in a walking, leering Humpty Dumpty-like egg-person. The clutter of imagery rarely feels ominous, but instead friendly, warm, and frustrating, like a large family. The central field of color in each is absent a divine or focusing figure, feeling rather like the lush interior of an ecosystem.
In a show titled to conjure an elder instructing a child, Fallah’s paintings are heavy with reference, figuration, and suggested narrative, with minimal, yet pointed instances of discord—a scene of Christopher Columbus arriving on Caribbean shores appears in the corner of Remember My Child, Nowhere is Safe. The works are busy yet composed, despite the deluge of imagery and symbol—it will take the viewer some time to tease out the onslaught of references. If Fallah’s paintings are sometimes opaque, performative, or even hectoring, they more often offer the promise of joyful unpacking. His works venture into wide stylistic territory, covering detailed portraiture, landscape, faithfully recreated cartoons, and carefully composed patterning. His references originate from so many different sources—children’s books, scientific illustrations, maps, skater culture, Americana, religious and cultural iconography culled from the artist’s own early years in Iran—that multiple points of entry into each work are available to the viewer. This is powerful and frustrating at once.
On the walk back to my car after seeing Fallah’s show, I tried to parse the distinction between myth, fable, and allegory, my mind quickly fuzzing in the stifling heat of late-September Los Angeles. The best I could recall was that a fable conveys a simple moral in story form, whereas a myth describes a version of how things came to be, often as a justification for worldview. I later realized I was looking for the word aphorism rather than allegory. Fallah’s titles—pithy, nearly-familiar phrases like They Will Smile to Your Face, offer a gloomy ring in the dominant thrall of competing images. There is a note of caution to these aphorisms, undergirding the delirium of Fallah’s paintings with a reminder to the titular child of negative forces at work beneath the wellspring of historical and cultural imagery. Fallah tends towards complex illustrations of simple fables, like sheets of noise over a rhythmic beat.
At least a half dozen referents appear across Ruin of the Soul, framed by a quote from environmental author Edward Abbey—“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” The work shows a proud, central tiger, its tail swishing into another section filled by a bronze statue from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Other figures spill out of their boxes in the neat, gridded underlay, including a beautifully mirrored rodeo horseman and what looks like a dejected version of Johnny Appleseed from the Middle Ages. Johnny, or whoever he is, tilts backwards under the weight of a mishandled globe, while a stream of seeds falls from his satchel. An abundance of detail might push the simplicity of a fable towards its border with myth; here the text drives an interpretation that makes only partial sense of the imagery. Ruin of the Soul seems preoccupied with the taming, reordering, or wildness of the natural world, mechanized into oblivion by Lang, reordered by “Johnny Appleseed,” and simply lived through, viscerally, by the tiger. A section in the lower right pictures a coughing cartoon sun amidst spindly smokestacks, in front of which a parade of annoyed cartoon animals march along an oily, black river, pointing to tensions, or parallels, between bucolic agriculture and industry.
Fallah’s works reside in the space between myth and fable—each story (and each of his pieces read like one) is not simple or direct enough to be fable, nor does its fantastical imagery culminate in a present reality as in myth. I am both taken by Fallah’s imagery and frustrated at the seeming development of points both handwringing and never quite made.
Science is the Antidote, Superstition is the Disease, the largest work in the show, offers a diptych of imagery seemingly concerned with bygone geopolitics, right down to the poorly drawn continents of its central world map. A cherubic, American colonial figure holds a pile of fireworks in the composition’s upper left; two brooding groups of men, illustrations from a mid-20th century book on Middle Eastern costume and headdress, appear in the upper and lower sections. Like many of Fallah’s works in the exhibition, Science is the Antidote suggests equivalence. No hierarchy or ordering principle is readily apparent; instead, each piece spirals open like a chain of events. Scale and detail conspire to fascinate. If Fallah’s aphorisms overwhelm broad interpretation, his more oblique works frustrate any coherence the aphorism might lead us to expect.
Image obsession has been a favored, beleaguered indicator of contemporary culture for decades. The steady stream of juxtaposing, vibrant imagery in Fallah’s work keys into what we have come to expect from images—distillation, heroism, eroticism, narrative, evocation. Differing images composed in this manner might be intended as clues to meaning (fable) or simply an originary scan of one person’s own mind (myth). Fallah’s autobiographical encounter with various images is framed as an index of the broadly accessible histories—regularly shared images, texts, and information networks—of our own time. In this sense, the artist’s proliferation of imagery represents a reinterpretation of the products of culture, and a repackaging that is geared to a child’s lack of preconception. If this rearrangement of autobiography undercuts the making of meaning—or even a clear sense of the soup of references we find ourselves within—it also obliquely emphasizes the validity and richness of real, lived experience.
Aaron Horst is a writer based in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Carla, Flash Art, and Art Review.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 22.