Intimacy, Portrayed: An Interview with Alexis Ralaivao
Beautiful or repellent, in a whisper or shout, art speaks directly to us. Inherent in each piece is an inherent dynamic that does not necessarily depend on the external world for inspiration or execution. That’s perfectly natural, right? Something intrinsically based on human emotion and intuitive reaction cannot be contained by rules and guidelines—as exemplified by the self-taught young French painter Alexis Ralaivao who makes his solo debut on October 8, 2020 at the newly opened ATM Gallery in New York's LES.
Over the years, Ralaivao spontaneously switched his interest in communication towards painting and art in general and the recent lockdown period turned to be the final nail in the coffin of that shift. Unburdened with institutional or educational influences or directions, he is entirely focused on making the type of work that he would like to see. And the lockdown circumstances in his hometown of Rennes were the perfect opportunity to start creating such work. Spending days in a small apartment together with his partner, he started painting a visual diary that captured those intimate moments. Depicting his reality exactly as he sees it, the body of work which will be presented in his international debut is a result of a genuine impulse to create, free from big expectations or any type of pressure. With the velvety softness of the surfaces and shrouded with almost celestial light, these snapshots of everyday life are glorifying this unique moment in time by immortalizing the tiniest sights of beauty one can experience locked indoors for a long period of time.
We've enjoyed seeing Ralaivao’s images on IG, so got in touch with him to learn more about the work and the journey that led to a NYC exhibition in the midst of global distraction.
Sasha Bogojev: How did you come up with the title, in relation to theimages?
Alexis Ralaivao: The title comes from a lecture that Henry Taylor gave at the Art Institute of Chicago. I watched it on YouTube and loved the way he talks about his art. He is 100% real, he paints what he wants, what he likes. At one point he explains how he started painting and that he just uses whatever he had his hands on, "There's never any excuse not to do anything." I love this philosophy because, really, often we tend to wait for the perfect time to act and make up excuses. "I don't have enough time," "I don't have the right tools," "I don't know where to start." But you just have to do it, just paint whatever you want, for once you are free to decide!
This is what I did for the exhibition. In France, during lockdown, we were allowed to go out just for 1 hour a day. So I just painted what surrounded me, mainly my girlfriend with whom I was in quarantine.
What are the scenes depicted in your paintings? All done in the same place, right?
The scenes are mostly intimate moments. As we were confined in a small apartment, living on top of each other, some of the paintings are close-ups because I feel like this is what I was seeing and those are probably the memories I'll have of this time. Little things like underwear and beauty marks.
Most of the scenes take place in or near the apartment #125 (the title of one of the paintings), which is in the city of Rennes in Brittany, France. There's just one painting which is more of a holiday memory, Formentera. It's a portrait of one of my best friends, in front of the sea, when we were still able to go abroad.
The way work is framed and cropped makes it feel very candid and authentic, purposely, I suppose?
Absolutely, they are moments that really happened. My paintings are like a diary. At first, I tried to do paintings based on staged photographs, but I didn't like the feek. There was something wrong. I like it when people don't know they are being photographed or painted because they act differently when they do know. So I based my work on pictures that weren't intentionally taken specifically for paintings. And often I use just a small portion of the photograph, just a detail that makes me feel something.
Why do you feel driven to capture those moments?
I like painting people. I like painting flesh and I feel like I haven't seen too many paintings where you feel close to someone. Like, if you are laying in bed with the person, so close that you only see a portion of her or his body. In classical portraiture, there is a distance between the public and the person represented. I want to erase that distance in some of my paintings. Plus painting flesh is always joyful. It is tricky to achieve; there are many ways to do it, but when it works, it is magical and fulfilling.
How did this body of work develop and what informed it stylistically?
It developed naturally. First I was really into painting flesh, figurative close-ups that could almost look like abstract paintings. But then I always got to go back to painting faces. Faces are challenging - one brush stroke and you completely change the physiognomy of the person. This is really interesting because sometimes you end up with another person than the one you were trying to paint. I am also always looking at other art, old masters, and contemporary ones. I often look at the same paintings, for example, Rembrandt's self-portrait from 1634 or John Currin's Crystal's Friend, and those make me want to paint something as beautiful.
The images seem to have a dreamy, almost heavenly, blessed atmosphere. Where does that come from?
Haha, that's funny because that's what most people feel about my work. I hadn’t seen it before people told me, so this is definitely not done on purpose. I guess it comes from the fact that I want to paint what I don't see in other paintings. So, no chiaroscuro, no aggressive bright color, I want to catch people's attention with the sweetness of the color palette. Every day we are subject to advertisements that want to draw our eyes in every possible way. The more it is flashy, the more it is shocking, the better it is for them. I feel like I've seen too much and I want to shock people with the tenderness. Beautiful, peaceful paintings.
Describe your journey to this solo show. What does it mean for you to have a solo gallery in NYC?
I still can't believe it! It is a dream coming true! I had a list of goals I wanted to achieve before my 30th birthday, and this wasn't even on it, haha.
Before this, I only had small shows in my hometown, Rennes. The last one in Paris, we organized with some friends who are fashion stylists, who were showing their collection at the same time. Then COVID happened and I had a lot of time to paint, experiment, improve my techniques. This is when I met NYC collectors Jonathan and Will. Nicest guys I know who love art and really support young emerging artists! Will, who was opening a gallery with Bill, really believed in my work and asked me to do a show in their new ATM gallery. I could not refuse! Now I cannot wait for people to discover the exhibition.