The Fowler Museum at UCLA presents Amir H. Fallah: The Fallacy of Borders, the artist’s first museum exhibition in Los Angeles. A celebration of Fallah’s vibrant maximalist style, more than 25 works of painting, sculpture, and stained glass contend with urgent themes of cultural inheritance and identity formation.
Born in 1979 in Tehran at the height of the Islamic Revolution, Fallah and his family moved several times before he arrived in the U.S. at the age of seven. Throughout his career, he has mined intimate aspects of his immigrant experience to forge an alternative portraiture, one that resists reductive characterization. This exhibition highlights the visual strategies and influences that underpin Fallah’s approach, which blends elements of his Iranian American heritage with those of other global traditions and their adaptations in Los Angeles’s diasporic communities.
The installation opens with an archive of Beautiful/Decay, the art and design magazine that Fallah founded, edited, and published from 1996 to 2013. The first-time exhibition of this publication and associated ephemera highlights his journey from graffiti artist to graphic designer to publisher— pursuits that sparked an autobiographical process of collaging found images. This longstanding practice of graphic remix has provided an expansive visual language to interrogate and transcend the boundaries and borders that separate people, cultures, and art practices.
Organized around eight thematic nodes, the Fowler presentation features collaborations, commissions, and long-standing series in a range of media. Commentary by Fallah, exhibition curator Amy Landau, award-winning graphic designer Willem Henri Lucas, and David Judson of Judson Studios can be heard via QR codes.
“This exhibition spotlights Fallah’s broad visual literacy, experimental drive, and creative receptivity—all anchored in his migrant experience,” said exhibition curator Amy Landau, director of interpretation and education at the Fowler. “He narrates from trauma and celebration, as well as his roles as a husband, father, and confidant, which lends a deeply humane aspect to his social critique.”
About the Exhibition
In this opening section, a gathering of back issues, t-shirts, media kits, and event invitations conjures the highly specific and generative world of Beautiful/Decay. Fallah produced his first photocopied zines in 1996 at the age of 16. By 2001, the project had transformed into a full-color publication featuring wide-ranging coverage of groundbreaking work across artistic fields. The magazine evolved into a book, published in nine volumes between 2009 and 2013. Each hand- numbered edition was birthed in partnership with a diverse array of creatives, and was accompanied by screen-prints, sticker packs, and other collectibles.
New Worlds | Old Worlds
Inspired by seventeenth-century Flemish garland paintings, Fallah’s tondo paintings combine flora from across the globe with images from vintage valentines, matchboxes, and anatomy illustrations, among other sources. For Fallah, the botanical imagery serves as a metaphor for immigrants seeking to thrive in their adoptive countries. The series can also be read as an allegory of Los Angeles, where indigenous and non-native flora coexist, resulting in new ecosystems replete with histories of colonization and conquest.
In an alternative meditation on migration and dominance, the Fowler-commissioned painting Invisible Line (2022) illustrates how museum collections can serve as documents of emigration and loss, while enhancing visitors’ visual literacy. A central figure—drawn from a Persian miniature painting—floats over a seventeenth-century Dutch map, the canvas perimeter lined with renderings of works in the Fowler collection: a Peruvian woven textile, a Japanese votive offering, and a pre-Columbian ceramic figure sculpted by the Colima people of Mexico.
Objects | Memories
Fallah tells personal stories associated with objects such as heirloom jewelry, collected textiles, or dolls, calling attention to the power of things to create bonds and evoke memories. Two paintings in this section center on veiled figures, surrounded by various objects that take the place of physiognomic characteristics, and record aspects of the sitters, the roads they have travelled, and the people for whom they care.
Fallah collaborates closely with the individuals he portrays in constructing their “likenesses.” He visits and interviews them at home, looking for patterns of significance. Eschewing such markers of identity as gender, skin color, and ethnicity, he obscures the heads and bodies of his sitters with patterned fabrics. He then surrounds them with objects and symbols that span cultures and generations, challenging simplistic assumptions about who a person is based on their appearance.
For this series of four windows, Fallah collaborated with Los Angeles-based Judson Studios, the oldest family-run stained-glass workshop in America, whose team meticulously translated the artist’s elaborate compositions into fused and leaded glass panels. Throughout his career, Fallah has experimented with oil and acrylic paints, seeking to achieve a high degree of luminosity to elicit emotional responses. The collaboration with Judson enabled him and the studio team to explore and expand the expressive potential of color and light.
Fallah draws inspiration from a variety of visual expressions unique to his adoptive city of Los Angeles, home to millions with migration stories. Reflections on cultural inheritance, diaspora, and homeland thread through his work. While addressing such ills as hatred, greed, and corruption, his paintings also offer hopeful and sentimental messages, aggregating the life lessons Fallah wishes to share with his son. For example, No Gods, No Masters (2020) calls out racist stereotypes through the depiction of Middle Eastern characters, while also referencing his son’s storybooks, quotations from Islamic manuscript paintings, and popular American illustrations.
The canvases in this section are divided into grid-like spaces, each a treasury of references to cultural heritage, emblems of devotion, family heirlooms, and references to modern art that coalesce into cautionary tales, social commentary, and stories of love. They Will Say a Collection of Untruths (2022) critiques the American promise of co-existence of religions and “races.” The psychedelic profile in the center riffs on a Milton Glaser graphic from a 1960s teen magazine feature on “combination skin.”
Fallah’s sculptures—hand-painted on flat sheets of cut aluminum—continue to challenge the expectations of portraiture, excluding references to gender, ethnicity, or class. The vibrant colors and dense patterns that appear elsewhere in Fallah’s work cover the entirety of these figures. According to the artist, these patterns function as skin, offering a protective layer to other life-giving organs, which are represented by the objects and symbols painted on the cut-outs or rendered as part of the figures’ outlines.
A Dual Presentation in Los Angeles
Concurrent with Amir H. Fallah: The Fallacy of Borders organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA (January 29–May 14, 2023), Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles will present Fallah’s work in the solo exhibition War on Wars, on view February 15–March 25, 2023. The artist has also produced a new neon sign, titled CHANT, soon to be installed on the front of Shulamit Nazarian gallery. The piece is intended to generate attention and awareness, as well as funds from its sale, for the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement in Iran.
The presentation of Fallah’s art across Los Angeles reflects his ongoing dialogue with the city— one with a broadly diasporic character, including, among others, the largest Iranian population outside Iran. Shulamit Nazarian and the Fowler Museum are both committed to representing artists whose perspectives are often proximal, but insufficiently highlighted. Fallah’s work engages stereotypes of “distant” cultures and empowers viewers to read his work through visual signs and systems.
Amir H. Fallah: The Fallacy of Borders
January 29–May 14, 2023
The Fowler Museum
308 Charles E Young Dr N, Los Angeles, CA 90024