From Issue 61: Ivan Alifan & The Art of Painting by (Instagram) Numbers
A new-old sense of democracy takes over when you look at Ivan Alifan’s Instagram feed. Beyond the beautiful shades of melted ice cream and realistic figure paintings, this artist is proud to show his process, step by step, and then sell you an A2 print of the final product. Starting to sound familiar?
“If this is your first time with us, let me extend a personal invitation for you to get your brushes and your paints and paint along with us. I think you’ll enjoy it.” For 403 episodes, an eternally chirpy white man with a comedic, perm-induced Afro and a Prada-esque taste in shirting and denim said the same line before commencing a half-hour lesson in painting “happy trees”, “almighty mountains” and “fluffy clouds”.
These were the 1980s and The Joy of Painting was an Emmy-winning PBS television show with its host and artist-in-charge, Bob Ross, enjoying the celebrity status of Mick Jagger. It wasn’t the first ever show of its format, but The Joy of Painting definitely became the most famous one – the dreamy landscapes defined a visual aesthetic of the time, and it still today marks a moment in time when art was here for everyone to enjoy.
Today, Ross is a posthumous meme icon, with a hefty number of fan accounts across all social-media channels and a legendary status in the ASMR community. The acronym stands for autonomous sensory meridian response and, yes, this is the black hole of the internet, where you’ll also find people getting off on YouTubers scratching their nails on textured surfaces and drinking water with a microphone attached to their throats.
Apparently, Ross’s voice sounds as soothing as it did in 1994 when the show finished airing, with millions tuning in to see the ways to Wet-on-Wet paint a sunset. Fast-forward a couple of decades and a few American states to the east from Indiana, where the show was recorded, and an artist is filming himself painting in his studio in New York City. Instead of PBS, there’s social media. Instead of landscapes, there are sexually charged figure paintings. The artist in question is Ivan Alifan, a 29-year-old Russian-born, Canada-bred painter whose Candyland-hued work got the attention of Lady Neophitou through – you guessed it – the Explore page of Instagram.
“I’m trying to get some shipping work done for all of the print orders I’ve collected over the past few days,” Alifan tells me over the phone. He is in his studio/flat in the South Bronx, where he moved recently from Queens. When answering questions he seems very calm – a deep, smooth voice that doesn’t show too much excitement. Every word is thought-out, in the service of portraying a successful young artist with brains. There’s not a single throwaway moment while he speaks – whether it’s his sexuality and relationship with his twin brother or the piping techniques he uses to paint, it feels like he’s on-air, recording a podcast. Is there some secret media training involved? Probably not. Alifan traces his discerning attitude and educational spirit back to his university days when he had a need for communicating with his colleagues instead of just playing the usual role of mysterious artist. “When you’re a painter everyone believes you’re supposed to be this magician that never reveals their secrets, right?” he says. “I always felt like that wasn’t the approach I wanted to take – I wanted to show my process.”
In 2013, Alifan graduated from Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), a school that counts many a respected artist among its alumni, including the abstract painter Jack Bush, performance artist Rebecca Belmore and the Portfolio star from the last issue of Ten magazine, the digital surrealist Ray Caesar. OCAD is known for breeding all kinds of creative brains, but even though he liked the experience, Alifan didn’t really always feel like he belonged. “I wasn’t considered a great artist, because, in a contemporary school, figuration is usually looked down on, because you’re not considered to be pushing the agenda or opening the horizon,” he says.
This didn’t stop him from indulging in his seemingly traditional approach to art making. Beyond his love for figurativism, Alifan is also a die-hard fan of one of the most traditional techniques that throw it all the way back to the Renaissance era. “The contemporary artist Cecily Brown said oil painting was invented to paint flesh and I buried that idea in my head. To this day I haven’t found a material that could represent the most translucent and truest colours that I see in skin.” And it’s his obsession with human flesh that transforms the sum of traditional elements into something absolutely modern, a subversive sort of erotica that makes you question the appropriateness of it all.
There’s no denying that the art world is still pretty conservative when it comes to seeing a naked body in a sexual context. Throughout history, fine art has used the human body as a romantic object rather than a representation of a human with sexual needs. Alifan, however, looks at it through the “Cogito, ergo sum” philosophy of René Descartes. “Sex is a part of nature, and therefore is natural,” he says, implying his own experiences inform the work he does. So, does he ever paint himself? “I think a lot of artists do realise that old portraits are portraits of themselves. Regardless of gender or who you’re painting, you’re painting yourself the most, because you can’t help portraying your own image on the person.”
This is, once again, reflected in his process. It all starts with a photo shoot, where Alifan enlists his friends, fellow artists and professional models to get covered in an unidentified white liquid or flip themselves into an awkward body position. After he develops those images in Photoshop – adding colours, modifying the layers and finalising the frame – the image is ready to be turned into a painting. Just like Ross, but with a bulging bicep and a slightly more streamlined hairdo, Alifan then shows his followers the step-by-step process of painting through time-lapse videos he posts on Instagram, or close-up recordings on his YouTube channel. These paintings go online as soon as they are finished – he doesn’t seem to care about the old-school process of allowing someone else to curate his vision or direct it towards the right person. The paintings go into the world, with an equal value being added to the final object as it is to the course of getting there – it’s all part of the same narrative.
Despite the urge to paint a softer vision of the world around him (“When I get home I want to look at work that is more subtle”), there’s a line he wants to be walking at all times – a line where beauty meets grossness, a balance beam between people buying it and hanging it on their walls versus grossing the audience out by what’s in front of them. Proving that having a commercial mind isn’t a kiss of death when it comes to fine art, this future-orientated, business-savvy mind is what is lacking in artists today. There’s often an urge for obscurity, as if being unknown guarantees a sort of success. That’s not the case with Alifan – he loves the idea of being everywhere. More than selling his original canvases, he enjoys the process of printing his works onto paper and selling them for a fraction of the price of the original work. “To think to myself that there are hundreds of prints hanging around the world right now that all act as their own billboards – it’s a constant reminder I make art in order to show it to the world.”
This kind of confidence doesn’t just come about. When he was 13, Alifan moved from Rostov, a small Russian town just north of Moscow where computers were a token of wealth, to Toronto. His mother, also a painter, decided to flee along with Alifan and his twin brother (who now works in construction) in order to give her children the opportunity for a better life. What Alifan experienced upon his arrival was a classic case of culture shock – “MSN, Yahoo – everyone could type so fast.” But instead of falling back, the experience pushed him even harder. Today, he is his own personal IT department: designing and managing his website, handling the orders, overseeing the printing as well as the social media. Digital has come to play an important role in his work, and to achieve such a personal turnaround in just a little over a decade is a just reward for Alifan’s tenacity. He loves what he does and how he does it. There’s no fear about showing it and exposing himself to opinions – it’s where he thrives.
But then there’s the inevitable question: what’s next? Perhaps a big exhibition is in the works? “Right now, my Instagram is acting as its own gallery. I’ve realised I have more power as an artist if I control and rely on myself rather than other galleries. When you ask me where I see myself in five years, I actually see myself not having a gallery at all.” In a time when art funding has become rarer than a sighting of the Loch Ness monster, shoehorning this idea of a digital democracy into the elitist circles of the art world sounds like a much-needed form of rebellion.
What really is the role of an artist today, then? Beyond just the mind-blowing visual satisfaction that makes the brain work faster, is there still a need for education, showing the audience how to do what you do? Perhaps I should ask one of the 394,000 (and counting) followers of Alifan’s Insta account. I bet there are even a couple of Bob Ross fan pages in there as well.