Beautiful/Decay is a staple in the art world, a resource that has introduced many casual and serious art lovers to new talent. It’s a website/magazine hybrid that is positioned as a part fine art, part new design, part punk rock, part lots-of-other-things creative hub: it is a pre-Internet zine turned magazine turned website turned art destination. Beautiful/Decay is now one of the top websites that lovers of the visual flock to in order to see and hear about new creatives–and it all started because now-Angeleno Amir H. Fallah was bored.
Beautiful/Decay is the result of a young artist’s boredom and need to share, celebrate, and speak to the younger generation of art. The project started when Amir was attending college and has grown to an internationally read art publication. it was never intended to be the brand it is now: it was simply a means of sharing the aesthetically fresh, the current.
“People always tell me that I must love writing…I dread it!” Amir says with a laugh. “I don’t even like writing my own artist statements–I hire a writer to help me do it!” He sits at the desk in his art studio in Highland Park. The sun shines into the space, which overlooks a pool. The wall space is covered in works-in-progress. Ironically, no trace of Beautiful/Decay is in sight.
“I grew up in Virginia, right outside of the DC area. I lived there unit I was eighteen,” he says. This suburban, dull environment plays a big influence on his life and rebellion against the norm. “I moved to Baltimore to attend undergrad. I went to a school called MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) and I studied painting and drawing. I did a short stint in New York and applied to grad schools in New York and Los Angeles–all over.”
“I got into UCLA, which is how I ended up here.” He motions to the land below us, grounding his story. “I actually never wanted to move to LA. I was a diehard East coaster.”
He got into a lot of graduate programs but was torn between UCLA and Columbia. “Both schools have good graduate programs and I was trying to figure out which one I wanted to go to. When I came to LA to visit the school, it happened to be when the thesis show was happening. I went and I was blown away by the quality of the work. It may have been that show in particular and dumb luck but it was one of the better thesis shows I’ve ever seen. I walked in and was like, ‘Holy shit: this is museum quality work being done by young artists!’”
“I wanted to go to a school where–by the time I’m done–I’m making a high level of work. I had also gotten into Art Center and CalArts and I loved their programs–but the student work didn’t catch my eye. UCLA left such a big impression that I had to go there.”
Switching his East coast identity for a West coast identity was a little difficult for Amir because of the reputation of the city: it’s big, it’s all about Hollywood, and there is no culture outside of celebrity culture. He quickly found this to be a myth.
“Because LA is so big, you aren’t sure how to find your community here,” he explains. “What most people don’t tell you is Hollywood is one tenth of what is in LA. There’s all these other amazing communities and neighborhoods and demographics of people. If you don’t want to be in Hollywood, you never have to go there.”
Amir arrived in Los Angeles in September of 2002, going straight from undergrad into his graduate studies. He was 22 at the time and very much feels that he became an adult in Los Angeles.
“There has been a huge shift,” he explains. “I went to grad school when I was really young. I was really ambitious and didn’t want to wait–and that hasn’t changed–but it would have been nice to have let the work get to a good place on its own and then go to grad school.”
“UCLA has such a dream team of professors. Between John Baldessari and Lari Pittman and Charlie Ray, you have these superstar art gods who visit your studios every day and they tell you what to do. If you are young and impressionable and come from a smaller art town and, all of a sudden, these people you read about in history books come into your studio and tell you what they like and don’t like, it fucks with your head.”
“When I went into grad school, my work was really explosive and colorful. By the time I graduated, I had ripped out everything in my work that was me: the work became simple and mundane and not me. It took me about four or five years of being outside of grad school, outside of people telling me what to do and just being in the studio to figure out my work. My work had come full circle because it has everything I was doing before I went into grad school but is now a bit more refined. I did need to go through that process of being torn down and built back up but, because I was so young when I went to UCLA. Now I feel like the vision for the work is clear. I know what I’m doing and what I want the work to convey. I feel pretty confident.”
Amir’s biggest takeaway in his education is to “take it all in but stay true to what you are making.” He believes that age and experience progress together and that things eventually make sense. You change, your work changes, and it all gets better.
“My work has changed a lot,” he says reflecting on his Los Angeles tenure. “If I were to pull out an old painting, I could point out all of these similarities. For example, I was using collage when I was in grad school and was making a lot of mixed media works and, now, this new work incorporates a lot of collage. You can see that when you’re up close. I abandoned that for many years and recently picked it up again. It’s little things like that. Ornamentation and patterning and decorative mark making (for lack of better words) have always been in my work. They’ve just gotten tighter and more refined over time.”
Outside of thought processes, he finds that Los Angeles as a city is incredibly impactful. “Los Angeles has this easiness which allows me to take some risks,” he says. “Additionally, the weather coupled with the art scene (which is more open and does feel like the Wild West because you can pave your own way and do your own thing) is great. You can have your own studio and a comfortable setup. I can work at my house and even get more space in the driveway. I could never have this in a big city! This is it.”
“I’ll also say that, by living in LA, I realized that because I grew up in a very conservative, suburban area, I prefer being in this grey zone that is technically a city but I can have a front yard, a back yard, and street area. It’s the best of both worlds: it’s the suburbs minus all the horrible things that come with the suburbs like mass produced houses. There’s no character or culture there. The neighborhood I grew up in didn’t even have sidewalks! It was a very sterile environment. For an artist who grew up listening to punk rock, making graffiti, and skateboarding, the suburbs were everything I stood against. Moving to California, I realized I can have the best of both worlds: in fifteen minutes, I can be at any art gallery I want.”
He finds this lifestyle to be particularly true for Eastsiders, an identity he has claimed for years. “This is my pace,” he says. “It’s neighborhood focused and it’s community based. No one tells you that about LA. It was a big transition but, once I got settled in, I thought, ‘Holy shit! This place is amazing.’”
This collision of influences and cultures and lifestyles has settled into his work in fascinating ways and, now, has allowed for him to make pieces that are contemporary jabs at traditional still life and portraiture: they are his interpretation the concepts classic art presents. His new series of floral still lives are an excellent example of this. “They’re based off of historical floral paintings,” he says to describe them. “For instance, the Golden Age in art history is a movement in Flemish and Dutch painting known for its floral still lives. What I’ve done is take these still lives and scanned reproductions of them and digitally cut them out. I took these flowers–like some of the big bulbs in an arrangement–and am remixing them into my paintings. I’m inspired by the idea of updating these old paintings. It’s a tipping of the cap to the Golden Age but done with very different materials.”
He points to a painting of bright flowers on a blue backdrop: cut paper images, representations of the flowers, abstraction, and photographic prints collide to make a still life that is both now and then. “I like that there are so many interpretations of the same image. Some of the digital print outs are pixelated since they are photos of a reproduction instead of the original. I like that it is a reproduction of a reproduction–and then the painting itself is a reproduction. It’s self-eating.”
This current work appears to be flat and slick but are full of textures and depth, a product of the hand aided by technology and history. “It’s doesn’t look like something that is digitally made. It’s a handmade item. The hand is super important,” he says gazing into his paintings. “I think that is something Important in California art. People on the West coast are more craft based in their art making. For me, that’s really important. If someone buys one of these paintings and places it I’m their home, I want them to feel that I labored over this image, that a human’s hand was in it. I want them to see all the imperfections of collage. I like that it is imperfect.”
“I always think that a successful work of art unravels over a period of time. Even with these old Golden Age still lives: they are the most boring motifs ever from a quick glance–but you eventually notice the decay and bugs and that this image is not what it appears to be. To me, that’s really interesting. They’re dark. They weren’t pretty pictures since they have eaten oysters and caterpillars: there is something grotesque about them. I like that mixture. There’s the beauty of the craft mixed in with dark, unsettling images. I try to do that with both the image and material, which I want to be unsettling. I want things to not align perfectly or the perspective to be skewed and parts of the painting to be abstract while other moments are representational. It fucks with your eyes.”
These still lives are paired with his latest body of work: figurative paintings based off of photographic portraits he has been taking of individuals with and through their possessions. These new paintings advance his still lives to a deeper level of image exaggeration and technique colliding. They are his current obsession.
“These portraits are all based off of photographs that I took. For instance, if I were taking a photo of you, I would go to your house and have you make an arrangement of your personal stuff. They would be things with some sentimental attachment. It could be as simple as a hat to an antique flare gun that your grandfather gave you that is 100 years old and it reminds you of him. It could be a favorite t-shirt or blanket or plant: I’m looking for these small mundane things that aren’t necessarily expensive but have an emotional attachment. I then create a still life setting with you and your objects—your face would most likely be covered. The reason I do that is because I want the objects to describe the person instead of superficial physical descriptions. It’s a deconstructed, coded description of the person.”
Amir then paints from these photos and mixes the objects and colors and visual cues up to create a new visual vocabulary. “I’m trying to create tension in the painting. I don’t want these to be pretty paintings of people that are easy to swallow. To me, that’s too easy. The bright colors and high level of ornamentation in the works could simply be read as decorative so I always strive for the work to convey a sense of mystery and uneasiness.
“Paintings in history have always been about telling a story,” he continues. “The artist manipulates the story or whoever is commissioning it is telling them what to do. Like Napoleon wanting to be painted on a horse so he looks fifteen feet tall instead of four feet tall: it’s a realistic portrait of someone–but with a twist to make it how he or she wants it. I try to do the same thing because, at the end of the day, I want the painting to be a good painting without the backstory. If I need to take the truth and manipulate it, I’m okay with that.”
Amir is continuing in this direction and already has this body of work lined up to be shared very soon. He is planning to stay in Los Angeles and also is going to keep Beautiful/Decay going–but on a sidetrack. The website/magazine/community has become incredibly self-sufficient: he is hoping to shift his focus back onto his art making.
“I’ve got a great team working on Beautiful/Decay so I’m taking the opportunity to not be involved in the day to day responsibilities,” Amir says. “It’s less of a full time commitment these days so I get to spend more time on my art career. I have four or five shows set for 2014–and three are solo shows! I have a lot of great opportunities coming up so I want to make sure that is my main focus.”
“Beautiful/Decay was just an art school project that got out of hand,” he says smiling. “It’s fun but I’m trying to focus on my first love, art. That is my priority.”
For more on Amir, be sure to check out his website and give him a follow on Twitter. You can also catch Amir at CSULB University Art Museum’s Chockablock starting January 26 through April 14 with a reception on the 26th from 6PM to 8PM. He’ll also be participating in San Francisco’s The Collected on March 14 through APril 14. For more on Beautiful/Decay, be sure to check out their website, Like them on Facebook, and you can grab their latest release here.