By going into people’s homes and collecting and arranging the knick-knacks, figurines and other objects that will appear alongside his subjects in his portraits, Fallah has been both obstructing and perpetuating the history of portraiture and patronage.
Though not portraying patrons, he has been working in a vein similar to the one widespread since well before the Renaissance. Artists would be asked to depict someone with means and to include in those portraits evidence of that person’s power and personality. Think of Hans Holbein’s portrait, The Ambassadors(1533), where two heavily dressed men stand on either side of a desk densely packed with signs of their knowledge and sophistication--a lute, a globe, books left open. Or the ermine in Leonardo da Vinci’s commissioned portrait of the Duke of Milan’s 16-year-old mistress (1489), a portrait that has been interpreted to no end: are the animal and the girl’s control over it signs of purity or of ferocity?
But unlike ambassadors and dukes of eras past, Fallah’s subjects do not dictate which signs and symbols are associated with their image. The artist does, using his own curiosity as arbiter. Through the process of painting, the artist gains greater and greater control over the portrayal of his subjects’ identities. Images are embellished and details introduced or omitted based on in-the-moment decisions, and the initial source photographs are skewed or even completely obscured.
This irreverent jumbling of the age-old subject-artist relationship prompted the idea for Fallah’s upcoming exhibition at Gallery Wendi Norris, set to open in March, 2013. What if this relationship was inverted further and more systematically? What if the artist found patrons for himself, then placed his own aesthetic and conceptual concerns at the epicenter of his portraits of them, so that patron’s desires would be subject to his choices?
All portraits in The Collected will be sold before the show opens, commissioned by collectors and painted according to Fallah’s already-established, pseudo-historical method. Fallah will enter each commissioner’s home, assemble from within his or her household a group of items that strikes him as appropriately telling and arrange these around his subject. He will then photograph his subject, and use the best of these photographs to execute his paintings. The commissioners will, of course, act as collaborators in the photo session, helping Fallah navigate their homes and understand what the items they possess mean to them.
Fallah aims to find out, but his investigation is also an intentionally comic, absurdist one. When the exhibition opens, on the large back wall, amidst the various commissioned portraits, will be a self-portrait of Fallah posed as a Christ-figure he saw covered in ornate, multi-colored robes on the cover of a Jehovah’s Witness flier. The robes were surely meant as signs of prestige, but, like the robes and blankets Fallah often uses to hide his subjects, they seem to obscure and weigh down this depiction of Christ. Who has the power anyway? And how can we tell?