Alexis Ralaivao bares his flesh in delicate and ephemeral paintings

Artists without a formal art education still have to explain themselves. People assume that they possess an unblemished individuality, a primitive purity. Or they must fight to become initiates, climbing twice as high as the others to prove how exceptional they are. The painter Alexis Ralaivao did not go to art school, but he is not a capital-O “foreigner”, nor divorced from his traditions and his stories.

“If you want to be a painter, you basically have to learn it on your own,” Ralaivao said in a recent interview with Artsy. “School might give you stuff to watch, but in the end you have to figure out what you like and what you want to paint.”

Ralaivao’s practice is a self-taught journey through art. Although his most notable works were made in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown, he started painting seriously more than 10 years ago, in 2012. During this time he experimented with acrylics, pastels and watercolors, before finding a major challenge. in oil paint. “All the paintings from this period, I’m a little embarrassed,” he admitted. “During those three years, I was doing everything, training and trying stuff.”

Portrait of Alexis Ralaivao in his studio. Courtesy of Alexis Ralaivao.

Alexis Ralaivao, Milano, 2022. Photo by Daniele Molajoli. Courtesy of the artist and T293.

Born and raised in Rennes, France, Ralaivao was an individual art school, creating a curriculum to suit his pace and tastes by supplementing his studies with lectures and art books on YouTube. The Dutch Old Masters proved to be his most consistent teachers.

As Ralaivao spent more and more time in front of the canvas, his distinctive style began to take shape. His diffuse portraits of exacting details, like hanging jewelry or parts of a body, are delicate and ephemeral. He plans to slowly conquer each of his beloved old Dutch masters’ motifs – textures like skin, metal and fabric – but dedicate an entire canvas to a single element, like an enlarged version of a Rembrandt portrait. .

Alexis Ralaivao, Bernini, 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and T293.

Alexis Ralaivao, At dawn, 2022. Photo by Daniele Molajoli. Courtesy of the artist and T293.

Earlier this year Ralaivao showcased his recent forays into metallic representations in his solo exhibition “Glittering Short Stories” at T293 in Rome. Before that, he made his Miami debut with “Start with the Truth, End with a Fantasy” at the Bill Brady Gallery. His painting Bernini (2021) has been acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.

This surge of attention came after touring band shows throughout 2021. He was part of Timothy Taylor’s ‘IRL (In Real Life)’ in London; “Pt. 2: Invasive Species” in Los Angeles; “Domesticity” from the Volery Gallery in Dubai; and a trio at the Galerie Hussenot in Paris. His first exhibition outside his native France, “There are never any excuses for doing nothing”, at the ATM Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side in 2020, was also his international premiere. . Before that, he mainly exhibited in salons he organized with colleagues and friends in Rennes.

Alexis Ralaivao, installation view of ‘Start with the Truth, End with a Fantasy’ at Bill Brady Gallery, 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and Bill Brady Gallery.

Through Ralaivao’s recent works, one has the impression of being on the inside of something – inside the painting, inside the subject, inside the artist, inside the camera or maybe inside a screen. He puts the “in” in the intimate. The best way to describe his work is to borrow the language of photography. He zooms in on his subjects – their face, torso or back – until flesh overwhelms the frame. He mainly works with three models: his girlfriend, his brother and his good friend Jordan. “I can’t paint people I’m not really intimate with,” Ralaivao explained. “It feels more authentic rather than [depicting] someone I don’t know, I won’t be emotionally involved enough to portray them well.

His pieces are timeless like in no particular era, especially not in the time of COVID. From the looks of his 2020 works, it would seem that the horrors of the pandemic and France’s strict self-isolation measures have not seeped into Ralaivao’s bubble of vaporous light and slimy bodies. He is aware of how lucky he is to have been able to withdraw and concentrate on his job. The lockdown is the context that we viewers don’t see. The result looks like a montage of intimate moments – like half-dressed figures tangled in sheets in the soft morning light and close-ups of rings, mouths or underwear – that fill his two-meter-high canvases. . Time is suspended.

Alexis Ralaivao, adam and eve, 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and the Bill Brady Gallery.

In Ralaivao’s work, the subject is always close enough to feel, certainly too close for social distancing, and above all, close enough to be touched. When discovering himself as an artist, Ralaivao enjoyed visiting museums to “see paintings In the fleshas he put it, a thoughtless choice of words that belies its main subject. “When you first pick up a brush,” he added, “you won’t be able to paint flesh realistically because the flesh has to be almost transparent.” The skin is delicate and unpredictable, but still, “when you succeed, it’s really rewarding,” Ralaivao described. On his canvases, the flesh is often exposed.

It is impossible to discuss representations of skin and flesh without focusing on their color. Ralaivao is of French and Malagasy origin, and his subjects reflect his social background, black or mixed race. While he was, at one point, motivated by Kerry James Marshall’s edict to take over museums with depictions of black people, Ralaivao does not simply aim to fill a representation void.

Alexis Ralaivao, Young man with a pearl necklace, 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and Bill Brady Gallery.

Alexis Ralaivao, The nap (The nap), 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and Bill Brady Gallery.

Despite his seemingly overnight success, steady rise in the art world, and stable popularity, Ralaivao is not naive about the quirks (and fetishes) of the institutional art world. “I feel like there’s clearly a trend of black artists, and it’s kind of scary if it’s just a trend,” he confessed. “There is generally a tendency to [people looking for] naive black painters.

However, he finds reasons to invest more in his practice. Speaking of the work he studied on the walls of the museum, he said: “On the painting you can see everything.” The process and the story are all there for the eye; the image is almost a decoy.

Alexis Ralaivao, Room service, 2022. Photo by Daniele Molajoli. Courtesy of the artist and T293.

Alexis Ralaivao

rococo reasons2022

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Now the Berlin-based artist writes short diary entries on the back of his canvases where his signature should be. “I feel like there should be something more,” Ralaivao said, thinking of the art restoration videos he watches on YouTube and how canvases become archaeological sites when older compositions are unearthed under the paint. He added: “It’s kind of a fantasy that this will happen to one of my paintings 200 years from now.”

Knowing that his work will be dissected, Ralaivao paints with the hope that it will also survive him. Perhaps he uses tightly cropped compositions to get his point across faster, so viewers can find what he left us sooner.

The artistic avant-garde 2022

Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature that rewards the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 emerging talents from around the world who are poised to become the next great leaders in contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect the artists’ works.

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Header: Alexis Ralaivao, from left to right: “A l’aube”, 2022. Photo by Daniele Molajoli; “Young Man with a Pearl Necklace”, 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber; “Rococo Reasons”, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

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