Hadi Fallahpisheh, Getting Closer, 2022, C-print, quilt, 90 × 82".

Hadi Fallahpisheh, Getting Closer, 2022, C-print, quilt, 90 × 82".

Hadi Fallahpisheh

In a little house at the end of a long, winding path live four friends: Cat, Dog, Mouse, and Human. They play games, throw dinner parties, and frolic precariously near cactus plants bristling with gnarly, jagged thorns. These characters inhabited each of the five large canvases in Hadi Fallahpisheh’s “Getting Closer.” From a distance, the cartoonlike tableaux resembled paintings, or perhaps the nervous etchings of a reclusive lunatic. Actually, they were photographs—cameraless ones. Fallahpisheh spends hours in the darkroom burning playful illustrations and moiré-like patterns onto giant sheets of chromogenic paper using an array of modified handheld lights. A white disk hovers somewhere in the frame of each scene, like the beam of a flashlight traversing a darkened bedroom or like the moon in the sky.

For this show, Fallahpisheh mounted several of these photographic light paintings on quilts collected from secondhand shops in and around upstate New York. The apparent depth and texture of the artist’s jittery line work seemed to recede beneath the glossy surface of the photo paper as you approached each work, while the stitches and dangling threads of their hand-sewn backdrops came into view. The effect was slippery, like trying to fix on an image thrown out of focus.

Assemblages of plush toys, crayon-scribbled cardboard, and decorative ceramics all contributed to the show’s cuddly mise-en-scène. The vibe was warm and welcoming but suspiciously so. It was difficult not to wonder, for example, what might be lurking beneath the dozen or so welcome mats strewn across the gallery’s entryway. In Blind Painter (Pink Bear) (all works cited, 2022), a floral-print teddy bear lay prostrate upon a quilt-topped plinth, its head apparently stuck inside a ceramic vase. The bear clutches a long paintbrush in either hand, while sloppy blotches of pastel-hued glaze run down the vase’s sides. The work’s initial kitsch effect gives way to a sober dig at a common archetype: the artist as naive savant, fumbling blindly around the cramped spaces of the psyche while producing inoffensive, salable objects.

Downstairs, things got stran­-ger. Vertical rows of lightweight wooden beams resembling prison bars blocked the entrance to two basement alcoves. Antique cellar doors hung from the wall above sets of cardboard stairs. These site-specific interventions were cute yet discordant, like set pieces from an elementary-school theatrical production of Les Misérables.

In one alcove—or cell—two oil paintings (Mirage #8 and Mirage #10) hung opposite one another, just beyond the bars. The paintings—enlarged copies of illustrations originally decorating the flyleaf pages of eighteenth-century poetry books—depict birds and a butterfly perched on blossoming flowers. Naturalistic vignettes drawn in pencil float at the edges of the canvas: a dog, a cat, a mouse, wistful men in baseball caps, and a young boy strongly resembling Fallahpisheh. Odd and haunting, they hint at the rather sentimental possibility that his cartoon characters may in fact be elegiac stand-ins for beloved pets and family members from his childhood in Tehran. But when I mentioned this interpretation to the artist, he corrected me, explaining that, no, the animals were not his pets, and that those “family members” are reproductions of criminal forensic sketches he found online. As for the boyhood portraits, Fallahpisheh used a photo de-aging app on some recent selfies, then drew the results. (“Only my parents would know it isn’t me,” he added, grinning.)

At the far end of one cell, cardboard cutouts of the show’s four protagonists sat propped up together behind a school desk. The human figure smiled mischievously, a black pencil wedged between his flat fingers, its point pressing down onto the tabletop. It might be Fallahpisheh’s most accurate self-portrait: the boy at his desk, surrounded by imaginary friends, indulging in the private joys of the doodle.