Welcome to Odd Jobs, where I interview artists about their varied and untraditional career arcs. For this installment I spoke on the telephone with Amir H. Fallah, whose work examines the conceits of portraiture, making its tropes the objects of manipulation and obfuscation. Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1979, he received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and his MFA in painting from the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2015 Fallah had a solo exhibition at the Norman Museum of Contemporary Art. He is a recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant and was chosen to participate in the 9th Sharjah Biennial.
Amir H. Fallah: Being the son of immigrants, I was always interested in hustling, trying to make something out of nothing.
Calder Yates: Where did your father immigrate from?
AF: We came from Iran. We left in ’85 and got to America in ’87. We came here with $75. Now my parents live in a giant McMansion in the suburbs. I watched my dad work seventy hours a week during my childhood. People who know me know I’m a huge workaholic, and I think it’s from watching my dad. Sitting around idle… I don’t know how people do it. It’s crazy to me.
CY: I can hear you scratching something, or painting on a canvas right now in the background…?
AF: Yeah, I’m behind on a deadline.
CY: You went to MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art], right?
AF: Yeah, on the first day of orientation, they said there’s a career center with a binder that listed a bunch of jobs. I sat down with the binder and there were all these requests for murals. At first I painted all the murals myself and I was getting paid a lot. After a while I thought: Why don’t I hire my friends and bring them on to help me? It ended up working really well and it expanded. God knows if I even paid taxes on that stuff.
CY: Is that when you started Beautiful Decay?
AF: Yeah, when I went to college, I was very frustrated with the art magazines. There was Artforum, which was really old and stuffy, and there was Juxtapoz, which was too lowbrow. I wanted to create a magazine that was in the middle, that was informed and fun to read. So I took the five grand I got from selling these five paintings my first year and I started Beautiful Decay. I convinced a graphic designer at school to design it for his portfolio. The first issue I sold at the school store. I would cold-call stores all over the country and sell them copies on consignment. At the height of it I had seven employees, two business partners, a clothing line, an office, payroll, health insurance…
CY: What prompted the decision to go to grad school?
AF: Since the age of 14, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I went to undergrad and I asked around, “What do you do next?” Everybody said, “You need to go to grad school.” I applied and got into all these schools, and UCLA offered me an additional scholarship. And that’s how I ended up at UCLA.
CY: So you continued Beautiful Decay during and after grad school. When did you decide to step away from it?
AF: I was always making work, and I was always showing work. At a certain point I realized there was not enough time in the day and I could do a mediocre job at both things. When you’re younger, you think you can do it all…
And also the art world doesn’t allow you to do two things. They want you to either be an artist or a publisher. It became apparent to me that everyone in the city knew me for the magazine and viewed me as a publisher and not as an artist. So even though I loved it and loved helping other artists, I made the decision to step away from it and just focus on my own work.
CY: You’re not the first person who has mentioned that their perception in the art world is directly informed by the day job that they do.
AF: Yeah, you can’t avoid it. It is what it is. We were sponsoring all the big art fairs and I was getting invited to all these cool events, but then I realized nobody gave a shit about the fact that I was an artist. In those environments, when you tell somebody you’re an artist, they’re like, “Oh, well isn’’t that nice,” and think you’re a Sunday painter, when in fact I was waking up at five in the morning to go to the studio before going into the office.
CY: Would you say you’ve been a full-time artist since then?
CY: How has deciding whether to start a family impacted your art career?
AF: I have a family, I’m married, and we have a small kid. He’s a year and nine months. My wife works in the fashion industry… It’s way harder than I thought it would be, and I was pretty informed. But I don’t know if it’s never sleeping—if that’s having a positive effect—but since we had the kid, I’ve had more opportunities in the art world doing cool projects. I’ve had the best two years ever.
I’m a big believer in making time. The thing I hate the most is when somebody tells me they don’t have enough time because they have a full-time job. When people say stuff like that to me, I’m like, “You’re not a real artist. You don’t want this bad enough.” I’m a super-busy person and I have a lot of friends who are the same. No one’s going to be pushing you to do it. You have to have this voice in your head pushing you to do it. I wake up thinking about making work, and I go to bed every night thinking about making work. In the bathroom, in the shower, that’s all I think about.
CY: Do you bring your kid into the studio with you?
AF: No. That doesn’t work. That’s not a thing. It doesn’t exist, at least not at this age. Maybe in movies. But if my son is in my studio, he’s trying to eat some oil paint or taking an Exact-O blade to his neck. No, you need a full-time nanny. That’s the only way to do it.
I feel really fortunate to be in a place to make money off of my work. It’s something I’ve had to work really hard at. I don’t feel like I’ve been handed anything. I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve had to work my ass off, to the point where during the recession, I developed alopecia because I was so stressed and working so many hours. It was literally causing me physical harm. Some people are lucky, but for me I’ve had to really work hard to be a working artist.