Artists unendowned with a formal arts education always have to explain themselves. People assume they possess an untarnished individuality, a primitive purity. Or they have to fight hard to become insiders, climbing twice as high as others to prove how exceptional they are. Painter Alexis Ralaivao did not go to art school, but he isn’t a capital-O “outsider,” nor is he divorced from its traditions and histories.
“If you want to be a painter, you have to basically learn it on your own,” Ralaivao said in a recent interview with Artsy. “School is going to maybe give you some stuff to look at, but in the end, you have to figure out what you like and what you want to paint.”
Ralaivao’s practice is an autodidact’s journey through art. Although his most notable works were made in 2020 during COVID-19-related lockdown, he started painting in earnest more than 10 years ago, in 2012. During this time, he experimented with acrylic, pastels, and watercolors, before finding a worthy challenge in oil paint. “All the paintings of this period, I’m kind of embarrassed by,” he admitted. “For those three years, I was doing everything, just practicing and trying stuff out.”
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 a one-man art school, creating a curriculum according to his pace and tastes by supplementing his studies with YouTube art lectures and books. 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 diffused portraits of exacting details, like dangling jewelry or parts of a body, are delicate and ephemeral. He plans to slowly conquer each of the motifs his beloved Dutch Old Masters did—textures like skin, metal, and cloth—but dedicate a whole canvas to a single element, like a zoomed-in version of a Rembrandt portrait.
Alexis Ralaivao, Bernini, 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and T293.
Alexis Ralaivao, À l’Aube (At Dawn), 2022. Photo by Daniele Molajoli. Courtesy of the artist and T293.
Earlier this year, Ralaivao presented his recent forays in metallic depictions in his solo show “Glittering Short Stories” at Rome’s T293. Prior to this, he made his Miami debut with “Start with the Truth, End with a Fantasy” at Bill Brady Gallery. His painting Bernini (2021) was acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
This flurry of attention came after touring in group shows throughout 2021. He was part of Timothy Taylor’s “IRL (In Real Life)” in London; Anat Ebgi’s “Pt. 2: Invasive Species” in Los Angeles; Volery Gallery’s “Domesticity” in Dubai; and a three-person show at Gallérie Hussenot in Paris. His first show outside of his birth country of France, “There’s never any excuses not to do anything,” at ATM Gallery in New York’s Lower East Side in 2020, was also his international debut. Before that, he mostly exhibited in shows he organized with fellow artists 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.
Throughout Ralaivao’s recent work, you get the impression of being 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 intimate. The best way to describe his oeuvre is by borrowing 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 paint it well.”
His pieces are timeless—as in not of any one particular time, especially not of COVID times. From the look of his 2020 works, it would seem as if the horrors of the pandemic and France’s strict self-isolation measures did not permeate into Ralaivao’s bubble of gauzy light and viscous bodies. He is aware of how fortunate he is to have been able to hunker down and focus on his craft. Lockdown is the context we, the viewers, don’t get to see. The result feels like a montage of intimate moments—like half-dressed figures tangled in sheets under the soft, morning light, and close-ups of rings, mouths, or underwear—that fill up his two-meter-tall canvases. Time is suspended.
Alexis Ralaivao, Adam and Eve, 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and T293.
In Ralaivao’s oeuvre, the subject is always close enough to smell, certainly too close for social distance, and above all, close enough to touch. When he was finding himself as an artist, Ralaivao valued visiting museums to “see paintings in the flesh,” as he put it, a thoughtless choice of words that belies his main subject. “When you first pick up a brush,” he added, “you won’t really be able to paint flesh in a realistic way because flesh has to be almost transparent.” Skin is tricky and unpredictable, but still, “when you succeed, it’s really rewarding,” Ralaivao described. On his canvases, flesh is often laid bare.
It’s impossible to discuss representations of skin and flesh without fixating on their color. Ralaivao is of French and Madagascan descent, and his subjects are reflective of his social circle, which is Black or mixed. While he was, at one point, motivated by Kerry James Marshall’s edict to take over museums with depictions of Black people, Ralaivao doesn’t aim to simply fill a representational gap.
Alexis Ralaivao, Jeune homme au collier de perles (Man with a pearl necklace), 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and Bill Brady Gallery.
Alexis Ralaivao, La sieste (The nap), 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and Bill Brady Gallery.
Despite his seemingly overnight success, steady art world ascent, and stable popularity, Ralaivao is not naïve about the whims (and fetishes) of the institutional art world. “I feel like, clearly, there is a trend of Black artists, and it’s kind of scary if it’s only a trend,” he confessed. “There is usually a trend of [people looking for] naïve Black painters.”
Still, he finds reason to put more of himself into his practice. When talking about the work he studied on museum walls, he said, “On the painting, you can see everything.” The process and the story are all there for the eye to take in; the image is almost a decoy.
Alexis Ralaivao, Room Service, 2022. Photo by Daniele Molajoli. Courtesy of the artist and T293.
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,” said Ralaivao, thinking of the art restoration videos he watches on YouTube and how canvases become archaeological sites when older compositions are unearthed from under the paint. He added, “It’s kind of a fantasy for it to happen to one of my paintings in 200 years.”
With the knowledge that his work will be dissected, Ralaivao paints with the hope that it will also outlive him. Maybe he uses closely cropped compositions to convey his point faster, so that viewers might sooner find what he left behind for us.
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.
Header: Alexis Ralaivao, from left to right: “A l'aube,” 2022. Photo by Daniele Molajoli; “Jeune homme au collier de perles,” 2021. Photo by Zachary Balber; “Rococo Reasons,” 2022. Courtesy of the artist.