Students of metaphysics commonly debate about time and space as an arc—curving and perhaps boomeranging, to ends that are difficult to articulate. Los Angeles–based artist Amir H. Fallah, however, postulates the experience of time and space as something more solid and tangible, akin to a structure engineered for indiscriminate movement back and forth. All Experience Is an Arch at Hap Gallery is an experiential recounting of a familial legacy as it can only be regarded posthumously—as it can be summarized from a sparingly objective distance. In the immersive installation, Fallah repurposes years’ worth of trinkets found at an estate sale in Los Angeles: purchased and treasured, but curiously not precious enough to pass down.
Fallah undertakes the exhibition in the same spirit as someone who has been charged with crafting a loved one’s eulogy. He delivers a few humanizing jabs to remind us of their fallibility and eccentricities, but by and large, communicates the family’s many memorable and exceptional traits. First Person Shooter Games, the exhibition’s standout painting, dominates the gallery’s main hall. A shrouded female figure is athletically poised to deliver a chest-pass in the direction of her voyeur. She is surrounded by reminders of her youth: golden bells, an impressive quantity of hard-won basketball trophies, and the style of monogrammed initials typically found on the possessions of those aspiring toward sophistication. Two hands, in mid-knit or purl, foreground the scene, indicating that the cloaked subject was as domestically talented as she was at sport. Though her likeness is well hidden, her identity is based on clues gathered about the family’s matriarch.
Clothing, old photographs, and writings from the estate sale provide access to the family, with which Fallah calculatedly decides to obscure or detail throughout the exhibition. The gallery walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in a dark spotted pattern from fabric found throughout the family home. Fallah reproduces many such patterns on small painted panels, never neglecting the billowing, wrinkles, and folds. The paintings are dispersed throughout the installation, tucked around unassuming corners, or hung at exceedingly strange heights. Titled Between the Folds (2015) in serial progression, these works are keen references of cultural connection and perhaps socioeconomic status. The fabrics, decorated in golden honeycombs, birds, and elaborate paisleys, are unknown in their original material and use.
Fallah has chosen to render his portraits and fabric paintings in blues, purples, and reds. No information is available about the subject’s skin or lineage beyond the immediate household. Through their patterns and colors, the paintings suggest that the family in question is Arab. And yet, were this assumption proven false, these markers of domestic taste and comfort could signal something appropriative, or colonial.
The most intimate moments in the exhibition are found in the re-creations of a family member’s amateur poetry and vulnerable scribbles. A small panel titled Dear Diary 4 (2015) reads without punctuation: “Well here I am writing you a letter and I don’t know exactly what for except that I was thinking of you and thought that that [sic] I’d like to put my thoughts on paper. First of all, I guess you know that I love you very very much and need you even more than that. When I talk to you I feel so complete that nothing could spoil that feeling. Always remember, I’m yours.” It is unclear whether the emotionally jagged capital letters are a mimicry of the composer’s handwriting, or simply a personal tell of the artist. Nevertheless, the author of such notes is candid throughout about his or her emotional trials and insecurities. Other panels contain hopes and observations from an adolescent party, love unrequited, and lamentation over one’s relationship with his or her father.
The exhibition is also littered with a variance of crudely coated objects on shelves. Ranging from beaded necklaces to statuettes of winged Egyptian goddesses, the collection of baubles has been encased in shiny, yellow enamel. The cartoonish sheen transforms the jewelry into kitsch. Through Fallah’s use of materials, the value of the objects is rendered inevident. The stagnant and petrified knick-knacks force a reevaluation of the creed of collectorship. What was the expense at which the objects were obtained? Were they genuine artifacts from Africa and the Middle East—or tokenized reproductions? Was this anonymous Los Angeles family a proud generation descended from emigrants—or was their inheritance something more historically complicated? What are the implications of either?
All Experience Is an Arch is a journey between a private domesticity and public proclamation of cultural pride. Fallah approaches a family’s history and intimate castoffs with a simultaneously critical and gentle eye. At times, Fallah’s treatment of signifiers of prosperity teeters on sarcastic praise. In other instances, the guarded representations of the family members are reminders that they were artful and thriving, if nothing else. The exhibition cleverly reenvisions the life of a private collection. The objects and images of an era now past will continue to be seen, coveted, and the subject of many an inquiry.
Amir H. Fallah: All Experience Is an Arch is on view at Hap Gallery in Portland, Oregon through April 30, 2016.