Going to the Edge and Then Turning Around
Alex Alferov Carries Our AIDS Past into the Future
by Chael Needle
As an artist, Alex Alferov is drawn to abstraction as much as the representational, and a series of portraits of male subjects, all of whom were living with HIV/AIDS in the first decade of the pandemic, captures this intersection of expressive impulses. Bold lines simultaneously entrap and liberate color, almost as if the painter is showing the viewer the emotional muscles, sinews and bones beneath the surface of the skin, and the subject come to life. Alferov also used “bold lines” to participate in this interview, offering, instead of a straightforward Q&A, small poems. They appeared in my email inbox one by one, like fragments of a memory one is trying to reassemble.
This one explains the impetus of the series:
I met David
at an Adult Children of Alcoholics twelve step
around circles we told our individual tales
lessons learned in childhood
the raise of the eye
cruelty from the lip
swallowed with a sharp deep hit
after many months I invited him to my studio
for a smoke
David would maneuver a slow dance
among my faces
comfortable with his body
peeling off clothes
I painted him many times
each time another side would come out to play
One of my paintings of David S. was selected
for an exhibition which he attended
showering everyone with his Southern Charm
Before he left he pulled me aside
and told me that he had AIDS
at a time when it was a death sentence
Not that much later, he commissioned me
for a portrait
he wanted me to capture his face
before it was ravaged
David had an unveiling at his home
above the fireplace his sensuality
burned brighter than any flame
I was approached by
a man whose partner had AIDS
and wanted me to do the same
Sadly many more commissioned me
and I found myself witnessing
the bitter sad journey
of dealing with one’s death
“The process of capturing the life in their eyes as they faced death created haunting images,” Alferov, who is an activist as well as a poet and artist, told me. The images of men do not fade away. They are not ghosts yet.They demand to be seen. Look at Dance, for example.
The dance; ACT UP and scream for our survival,
playing Russian roulette with each new encounter.
I watched a lot of my friends run to the edge and then
fall taking the drugs that killed quicker than the available treatments.
I understood the seduction of the faceless encounters
bathed in rape and disdain. So I retreated, shut myself with my words and colors, to document the brave and the vulnerable.
Apart from the series, Alferov sometimes turns his gaze toward his personal life and relationships before AIDS struck his community.
When I finally came out I had less than a handful of choices in finding my tribe.
During the late 60’s you took your life in your hands as you made your way towards destinations that were dimly lit and usually hidden, as the cops circled. There was always the threat of arrest, bend over the hood and through clenched teeth an array of snicker, making you feel like the sick faggot that you were.
It was during a time when you were defined by sexual behavior not sexual orientation. Most of us still had deep down hatred of ourselves and felt totally out of step in the heterosexual world.
We became survivors easing the anger with alcohol, drugs, and one-night stands. It was reasonably safe to let it all hang, nothing that a prescription of antibiotics couldn’t cure.
This painting was done at the end of our eight-year relationship when I decided that I would be better off alone.
We met in 1970 at the Farm, a popular West Hollywood dance bar. We danced around each other negotiating top/bottom before we headed out.
All the signs were there to turn around and make a different choice. But it was a Monday night, eve of another Christian holiday and neither of us scored all weekend.
Our general horniness made us agree to take turns. We were fuck buddies and dear friends that never went beyond the immediate.
Alferov’s artistic subjects and media are wide-ranging. He was graduated from Cal State Northridge in 1973 with a degree in color theory. A pioneer in computer art, he was selected to be Artist in Residence at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum’s new-at-the-time creative computer program, his tenure lasting from 1985 to 1990. For the Madonna Project, he combined his Russian roots (his father was Russian and his mother was Serbian, and Alex was born in Yugoslavia), and in particular the iconography of the Russian Orthodox Church, with his love of Mexican art and its depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Madonna Project intersected with The Wall-Las Memorias Project in 2005. Alferov, along with five other artists, were commissioned to create work for an AIDS monument in Lincoln Park, in Los Angeles.The monument sought to depict the realities of living with AIDS in Latino communities. For his contribution, he created two murals, both grants-funded.
His work has been collected privately (including one of these murals), as well as part of the Los Angeles Museum Permanent Print Collection and the University of Santa Barbara Archives.
He is currently planning an upcoming retrospective, “Growing Up Gay in a Dysfunctional Family,” which he says “also spans the history of the gay movement and the rise of AIDS.” Its genesis was a flood of encouragement when he sat on a gay panel for Self Help Graphics (where Alferov worked) hosted by the art department at Cal State LA, which is also helping to coordinate the exhibit. “It was one of those evenings when I was relaxed and let my life speak for itself. The reaction was beyond positive and afterwards I was invited to come out with an exhibition idea.”
The exhibit is scheduled for Fall 2021, when the artist is turning seventy-five. It will revisit the themes of survival, abuse, navigating the gay community, sex, and relationships. He hopes to complement images with his poetry. The exhibition, which he would like to travel throughout the state universities, will be composed of three parts: early work from his involvement with Self Help Graphics (1987–2001); creating the Exhibition Print Program and representing some of the well-known artists from various SHG print ateliers (“I have chosen a dozen artists, mostly women, to exhibit a print that I would choose for my revolving exhibitions.”); and a current collaboration with artist Tom Jewett.
Notes Alferov on his website: “My collaboration with Tom Jewett is a testament to a friendship decades deep. Back in film school, we were attracted to each other’s artistic bent, Tom with photography and me with my dripping abstracts. We understood, and appreciated becoming lifelong fans of, each other’s work.
“There have been many changes in both of our lives but we have always made time to check in, eager to see how our creativity has evolved.
“This collaboration addresses experiences in our lives, touched upon at dinner gatherings or quiet moments alone. We discovered that we grew up in toxic households at the whim of adults with issues never resolved but expressed in anger that turned into abuse. For Tom, it was verbal and physical abuse. For me, it was a combination of both and also sexual abuse.”
I’ve gone beyond surviving my life. Grateful
that I went to the edge and then turned around, but I did not come out unscarred. The toughest thing was to forgive the bullies, the alcohol, the abuse.
I learned many lessons from my mother who
always had a smile and a home-cooked meal
to appease and entice. Pride and nobility from
my grandmother, uncertainty and paranoia from
my father and the lesson to stay away from men like my
Art, poetry, my 29-year relationship with my husband Kevin, cats and a community garden across from my home and studio that I helped create have given me purpose.
I never gave up on myself and with time I learned to forgive
and love myself.
For more information about the artist and updates about the exhibition, please visit: www.alferovmedia.com.
Chael Needle coedited, along with Diane Goettel, the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the Last Twenty Years of A&U (Black Lawrence Press). He is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.