Amir Fallah trades in portraiture. His pattern-laden paintings typically depict subjects cloaked in yards of bright fabrics, adorned in sentimental jewelry or family heirlooms. Draped in anonymity, his figures offer only breadcrumbs—their identities hinted at through the specific cultural objects they are intricately depicted with. Yet, for Unknown Voyage, Fallahhas honed in on a rather notorious subject to act as muse to this unique body of paintings: the late Parisian painter, Henri Rousseau.
While Rousseau has now been accepted into the annals of art history, and went on to influence a number of artists of his day (Picasso, Delaunay, De Chirico, Matisse, Magritte) in his time, he was a bit of an outsider—he was ridiculed for his untrained, child-like style. Dubiously, Rousseau had a penchant for fantastical hyperbolic tales. His most well known works, such as Dream (1910), picture a lush Mexican jungle, which he reportedly experienced first hand during his years in the French Infantry. In reality, his time in the military passed with little event or adventure; Rousseau, indeed, never left France. Rather than exotic lands and brave escapades, his jungle scenes were painted from source material such as the Paris Botanical Gardens, books, ticket stubs, postcards, and detritus he encountered in his home country. In his rich fantasy life, and appropriation of multi-varied source materials, Rousseau was, in many ways, ahead of his time—the advent of the internet now allows artists to sample loosely from a well of sources online.
Fallah has created his portrait of Rousseau, much like Rousseau depicted the Mexican jungle: as a voyeur, longing to be immersed in a fantastical subject. Like Rousseau’s evocation of exotic adventure, Fallah’s body of paintings elicit a sense of expedition. In Adventure Awaits (2016), a cartoonish yellow hand pulls back a curtain to reveal a lush tropical scene; the curtains, which contain a pattern of traditional Mexican needlepoint, edge the jungle scene, hemming it in and acting as a frame within a frame. Flat panels of wood grain become a second layer of trompe l'oeil, while Fallah’s signature “borders” add punctuation to the illusion. The work evokes a vast world; yet Fallah insists again and again on the frame edges, implying doggedly that everything we might need to decode the painting exist within the canvas walls. The jungle, which in physicality would loom deep into the background, here seems truncated as if only a few feet deep.
Winter Garden (2015) is modeled after a postcard from the Jardin Des Plantes that Rousseau frequented to study the plant life for his jungle scenes. The shape of Fallah’s canvas arches around the greenhouse roofing that is depicted; again, several framing devices are utilized the composition. Low in the painting is a ticket stub from the Jardin des Plantes—Fallah here is outing Rousseau’s false tales, while also paying homage to his sly methodology. In Good Holiday Left and Right (2015) Fallah nods to Rousseau’s 1892 painting, Bonne fête,in which a stiff hand holds an impossible grouping of flowers that swirl throughout the canvas in perfect composure, as if floating. Fallah’s rendition mirrors the original in composition, yet, while Rousseau’s bouquet only held three flowers, the bunches in Good Holiday are densely layered like a Baroque still life dripping with excess. A monochromatic jungle scene encompasses the wall behind the suite of five paintings; this engulfing image was sourced from a quick Google image search of “Mexican Jungle.” Here, Fallah has created a composite image from several Google images, building a pixelated and falsified landscape.
To use Rousseau as a subject is akin to using illusion itself. Throughout painting history, illusion has existed alongside representation: from early Byzantine icon paintings to Magritte’s floating objects. Yet, in our current technological world, a surreal image hardly surprises. While documentary photographs once represented hard fact, today, a photograph can become fiction with the click of a mouse. Contemporary media is a myth, everything is an appropriation. Fallah’s portrait of Rousseau, while rooted in depicting the alluring and arduous life of a 19th century painter, becomes a commentary on today’s hybrid image culture, and an escapade into the realms of illusion and fantasy. - Lindsay Preston Zappas