Ivan Alifan is a Russian-born artist who is fascinated with sex and sensuality. Growing up in a culture where sex was very much taboo, Ivan now always works to celebrate sexual freedom in his decadent, candy-colored paintings. We caught up with him for an insight into his practice.
Where did it all begin for you?
My ability to draw was discovered in Russia at a young age by my friends in second grade. My grandma then pushed me to join a traditional artist after school program, like a bootcamp for artists. I remember one time having to draw a perfect circle by hand. I had to stay back after most kids had finished and left, and I wasn’t allowed to leave until I did it perfectly.
Within that school I discovered my first revelation that changed me completely. I dipped my brush in a different colors by accident and painted a leaf with blue and purple tones. To me this opened my eyes to the idea that color was nothing but tiny fragments of different colors dancing side by side making a larger picture. Similar to how we can zoom in to a TV screens. It was a realization that the sky is anything but merely “blue”. Later, I moved to Canada where I went to an art high school and later applied to Ontario College and Design.
Where did you grow up? How is creativity celebrated in your culture compared to other places you have lived and worked?
I grew up in a small town in Russia, Rostov. Russian culture when it comes to art has some of the best skilled painters. But there is a difference between being a good painter who can mimic a photograph and an artist, who produces emotion and concept. After a recent trip to St. Petersburg, I was disappointed in the contemporary figurative art scene. It felt too safe and overly censored.
One of the reasons why I paint is that I want to paint what I did not see in Russia, and to bring the Western mentality and freedom of sexuality to Russia. I now live in New York where creativity and diversity can flourish.
What are the themes and issues you like to explore?
If you remove the figures, the majority of my works are paintings about paint.
There is something sexy and attractive; the way the paint slowly squeezes out of a tube and on to a pallet. I often wondered if I was the only one that felt this way.
I once was caught standing in line, staring, watching a Dunkin Donuts commercial. The image was of donuts being dipped in a chocolate glaze. It revealed a lot to me about our cravings and desires, as well as gluttony and sex.
I applied the same elements to my work, such as the pastel color, glossiness, texture, viscosity, etc., that was used in the making of the Dunkin Donuts commercial. I understand now why they call it “food porn”. I take these elements and bring it to my work in the hopes of revealing to the viewer the underlying sexual relationship that we might all share.
I also began painting small hand studies of cropped hands to explore the way our hands and fingers have their own sexual language. I later explored and portrayed different sexes, ages, and races. As a whole, the series was about embracing self love (masturbation) regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual orientation.
Is there an overarching feeling or message you hope to give your audience?
There is a darker and deeper exploration that is linked with our insatiable desires. To let the viewer explore their inner psyche and to provoke self awareness is what I hope to achieve in art. I believe art is sex and sex is art. For decades sex in art was viewed as taboo and to this day it still remains the same, especially in a censored country like Russia.
Could you walk us through the process of creating one of your paintings, from idea to realization?
I start off with multiple ideas floating in my head until I finally feel comfortable to begin a photoshoot. With my main idea strongly present in my mind I begin my photoshoot trying to recreate it and make it in to reality. Majority of my models are my friends and painters who enjoy working with me and don’t mind getting dirty. During a photoshoot I realize that I could never achieve what I originally imagined.
Majority of times I get surprised by the amount of accidents that happen during photoshoots, and how those accidents push my main idea further. At the end, it could be completely different from what I first imagined to make. After collaging and editing the images from the shoot, I use them as my source material to begin my painting.
The piece in the video clip on the front page of your website – is this a new style of painting you are exploring? How do you achieve this 3D effect?
During photoshoots I use a cake pipping tool to squeeze cream on a surface or model. I decided to experiment and use that in my painting as my tool. I believe it still relates to the same topics such as over excess, and forces the viewer to see the painting as a delicious object. I achieved this effect by using oil, cold wax and quick drier .
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered in your time as an artist?
To this day my biggest challenge that effects me is finding balance between love, art, and self care. What I mean by love is finding love in others and in what you do. This is related to being social, parents and significant others. Art is related to brainstorming for upcoming paintings, research, documentation, critic and producing work. Self care is related to exercise and eating right. It is when these 3 things are balanced that I’m at my highest state of well being, feel the most productive / creative, and feel like I’m on a right track. This triangle is very well intertwined, that if one fails it effects the rest. The trio fluctuates more times than I would like.
What inspires you?
Thanks to Instagram I get bombarded by over 100 different artists I follow. I follow photographers, sculptors, painters and even occasionally memes. Some of my favorite contemporary artists are Cicely Brown, Jenny Saville, Damian Thompson, George Condo, Dana Schutz, John Currin and Peter Doig just to name a few.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Before leaving to New York City my aunt looked me straight in my eyes and said, “I want you to experience love, I want you to experience loss, I want you to experience drugs, pain, suffering, rejection and true happiness. Because experience is what builds an artist.” Art has the ability to interpret these emotions, and experience will further your art.