Reconstructing an Icon: Alex Alferov’s Visual Meditation
Annie Buckley, Los Angeles, CA June 20, 2008
Alex Aferov’s Madonnas are quixotically composed of variations on a face without a body, or rather, a body contained by absence. The series grew in depth and scope after the deaths of his mentor and friend, Sister Karen Boccalero, in 1997 and, shortly afterwards, his mother, in 1998. In this context, the Madonna images are intricately intertwined with personal history, as well as political, religious, and art historical concerns. Their composite surfaces, at once contemporary and archaic, pious and irreverent, representational and abstract, reflect these multiple influences.
When I first met Alex, in the early nineties, his paintings were more narrative pictures - a mournful man perched on the edge of a bed, cigarette dangling casually from his lips, a woman’s face swelling to the edges of a canvas – rendered in the vivid tones of night, extremity, and their sometimes nauseous or grief-stricken aftermath. Yet among these were quieter canvases, small, tender portraits of Alferov’s mother, Luba, a tiny Slavic woman whose amazing, yet tragic, life story began when, as a child during World War II, she survived a bomb dropped on her house in Belgrade. The experience left her motherless and with a glass eye; nevertheless, Luba grew up, married, and, after several moves, landed with her husband and son in the United States, in a house on Fountain, in the middle of Hollywood, where Alex still lives and works today.
In seeking to understand the Madonna collages, it is interesting to note that Luba communicated in an elaborate concoction of languages - a bit of English, some Slavic, and Russian thrown into the mix. In the right mood, one could understand exactly what she said and this was a kind of thrill, like being permitted access to an exclusive but unfamiliar place. But much of the time, her speech was unintelligible to all but Alex. In the collages, pieces of older paintings are cut into rectangles and reconfigured into a carnival-colored kaleidoscope of a face. The grey image of a gun forms the contours of a forehead; the nearly transparent white ghost of a face is laid, mask-like, over a fire-tinged visage with spray-painted features. Pieced together with elements of older works, some rejected from previous years, are new elements, text and images culled from day-to-day life or the Internet - a poster, a photo of a wall, a torn advertisement. The practice dovetails with a particularly Alferovian tendency to reuse and recycle, both metaphorically and materially. Patched together like so many languages forging a conversation is the face of an icon, woman, a mother.
Growing up in the house on Fountain Avenue, Alferov lived the uncanny experience of most children of immigrants, steeped in the youth culture of a new land at school, yet at home, surrounded by the shadows of those who were gone or left behind. Early on, he was an altar boy at the Russian Orthodox Church and the elongated faces and oval eyes of Byzantine art have made their way into his work. Later, as an artist and curator, Alferov was similarly influenced by a diversity of cultures and experiences: street life, gay clubs, the 80’s art boom, the AIDS crisis, and perhaps most importantly, Chicano art. At East Los Angeles’ Self Help Graphics, where he met Sister Karen, Alferov curated exhibitions and made prints of his work for several years.
Indeed the Madonnas are visually aligned with the colors and style of many of the Self Help Graphics artists; yet they also relate to works by feminist artists from the seventies and eighties, artists for whom art was not – could not – be separated from daily life as a pure ideal but was always already integrated with it, the insistent political part and parcel with the messy personal, the spirit embedded in the grip of the body. In this way, Alferov seems to long for a kind of art that cried real tears (as icons have been rumored to do) and prowled the streets in search of home..