The Caretaker- Nerman Museum Of Contemporary Art
In a society obsessed with physical appearances, Amir H. Fallah makes portraits that have nothing to do with the way an individual looks. After choosing a subject—a friend, acquaintance, or, in the case of his Nerman exhibit, someone who was a complete stranger when he began, Fallah excavates the person’s life. He visits the home, taking in furniture and décor and combing through the possessions, mementos and other treasures that speak to the values and relationships that define the inner self. Given the billion-dollar industry that serves people’s concern with how they present their outer selves, it’s a subversive approach, made all the more so by Fallah’s practice of covering his subjects in fabric, drapery, or other materials, so that we don’t see their physical features at all. “An overarching theme of my work is: How do you create an alternative portrait,” Fallah said in a recent interview. “Instead of describing what they look like superficially, how do we approach portraiture in a new way?”
Fallah demonstrates his answer in his multi-part portrait of JCCC journalism professor Mark Raduziner, a subject chosen at the suggestion of the Nerman’s executive director, Bruce Hartman. The idea fit in with Fallah’s desire to make his Nerman show specific to Kansas City, part of the L.A.-based artist’s recent turn to gearing the subjects of his exhibits to their locations. But what clinched his decision to portray Raduziner was an article Hartman sent him about Raduziner’s cactus collection. When the two met in person at Raduziner’s house, Fallah was entranced by what he found. Initially, he was captivated by the cacti, displayed throughout the house and under grow lights in the basement. “He’s taking care of something that is not meant to be alive in the Midwest environment,” Fallah said. “Mark has a need to nurture these things.”
But as he explored further, Fallah began to feel a kinship with Raduziner’s sensibility, including his placement of other objects he collects - clocks, lava lamps and little face sculptures - around the cacti. Then Fallah discovered Raduziner’s trove of heirlooms from his parents, including needlepoint pillows stitched by his mother and wildly patterned Coogi sweaters that belonged to his father. All of these materials became the raw materials for Fallah’s installation, The Caretaker, a many-faceted portrait of Raduziner.
The central element is a 12-foot-high sculpture inspired by Raduziner’s collection of lava lamps, fronted with Plexiglas and mounted on a circular platform. Grow lights illumine the interior, which houses an arch-shaped painted portrait of Raduziner, his head, face and entire upper body entirely hidden beneath wildly patterned Coogi sweaters. In his right hand he holds wind chimes; to his left is a needlepoint pillow. Fallah decided to line the interior with marbleized paper after seeing Raduziner’s experiments with the technique displayed on the walls of his basement. And he liked the visual similarities he saw between the marbleized paper, the swirling lava of the lamps and the patterns of the Coogi sweaters. Displayed with the painting, assorted specimens from Raduziner’s cactus collection complete what Fallah calls a “diorama of his life. I’m using his life as a starting point, and taking it somewhere new, different and unexpected, even to him,” Fallah said.
Fallah extends his unconventional portrayal of Raduziner to the gallery walls. One holds a massive wall hanging created from Coogi sweaters, Fallah compares it to a blanket and titled it Comfort, after Raduziner shared that wearing the sweaters gives him comfort and reminds him of his father. And Fallah enjoys its relationship with the needlepoint pillows Raduziner’s mother made as well.
Two large tondo paintings celebrate the natural world. One features cacti and succulents from Raduziner’s collection and collaged photographs he took of them; the other depicts plants native to Kansas City and includes Fallah’s photographic images of animal and insect life he found in Raduziner’s back yard. Completing the ensemble are multiple cactus plants placed on specially made shelves mounted throughout the gallery, and three smaller canvases in shapes inspired by clocks in Raduziner’s collection. Their subjects? Raduziner, of course, only in these portraits he is draped in patterns based on his mother’s needlepoint pillows and holds specimens of cactus from his collection.
Fallah is the first to admit that while Raduziner is the ostensible subject, The Caretaker is every bit as much a portrait of its creator. “I’m taking Mark’s life and making it fit my own artistic needs and wants,” he said. “It’s not a documentary. It doesn’t have to be 100 percent true. It’s a really good metaphor for how history is written - history is constantly being manipulated to suit the selfish needs of whoever is writing it.”