Alexei Biryukoff was born in Kyrgyzstan, later lived in Kazakhstan, and moved to Russia in 1990, the year before the Soviet Union fell apart. Since 2011 he has been living and working in Deptford, N.J. He is a self-taught artist, having never attended art school. Before he got his master’s degree in linguistics in 2000, he had his first solo show at a small local gallery in Siberia. At that point he devoted his focus full-time to being an artist. Since then he has had nine solo shows and participated in international group shows and biennials. After receiving a grant from CEC Artslink in New York City in 2008, he came for his first visit to the United States and spent five weeks in art residency in Provincetown, Mass., in one of the oldest art colonies in the States.
Alexei’s work is predominantly large-scale nudes of older fat men who are trying to survive in the glamorous fitness model culture imposed worldwide. His first show that included nudes, in 2004, was considered obscene because of the male nudity and was closed down by local officials in Barnaul, a city in southwestern Siberia.
But nudes are only one aspect of his work. One of his previous shows was dedicated to the terrorist attack in Beslan, Chechnya.
Besides the visuals, Alexei’s shows usually include sound art and/or a performance piece. He is active in experimental underground music and is known as Muhmood in the subculture of dark, ambient, drone, and noise recordings. He has released albums on various online labels, and all of his music is free to download from the Muhmood website.
The Advocate: Why are you an artist?
Biryukoff: To me, being an artist is not a profession or a social status; it is an instinctive need, a passion that takes me places and makes me wonder how or why I ended up here. I guess if one day I figure out why I have this need to create, it will become a “job.” I’d prefer it to stay a journey.
What catches your eye?
You never know what might catch your eye. One morning you might walk out into the yard and be totally taken by the way the morning rays of sun fall upon the black trash bins, creating this terrific contrast with the moss-covered fence that is falling apart. Having moved to New Jersey just a couple of months ago, there are a lot of things that catch my eye and move my mind here. The abundance of birds and animals in the southern Jersey suburbs, smiles on waitresses' faces, bottles of ketchup at the diners, signs and streetlights, junkyards, cemeteries, boats, huge trees, and roadkill, American mailboxes, coupons, and face-lift advertisements — there is a lot of fun going on here! When I travel somewhere I take loads and loads of pictures. During my first American trip in 2008, over 2 months I took over 14,000 shots, I guess I had a little photographic disorder at that point. But seriously, I am a very visual person. Finding unusual images in the usual mundane things and making other people see it in a different light is very enjoyable to me.
Tell us about your process or techniques.
The process is going on pretty much 24/7 — there are always a few ideas swirling and cycling in my head until I get to the point of seeing a bigger picture of what it is going to be. Talking about the conceptual projects I have done, like Naked Loneliness, that involved performances and sound art in addition to the paintings on the wall — projects like that took me at least a year to pull all the parts together to actually start seeing it materialize. But on the other hand, I am a very impulsive person and can paint very quickly — it might take me quite a while sitting on one image, mulching it, doing crappy sketches that go straight into the trash, but once I get the image in my head and “feel it,” it just happens.
How do you choose your subjects?
I find this a difficult question to answer. I find many subjects interesting and inspiring, so the best answer I can give is that I don't choose my subjects — they choose me. A lot of my subjects are based on the emotions they stir and the feelings they produce in me, and not just the visual image.
How do you describe your work?
If I had to put a tag on my work, I would have to call it “contemporary figurative,” which can range from very realistic to very abstract. Sometimes my work is impulsive and aggressive, at times it takes time and many layers to achieve the effect I want. But I don't try to stick myself in one box; I like to work in a multimedia area where the viewer feels part of the work, using sound, painting, and performance to make it an interactive experience.
What makes a good artwork to you?
Truth. Which sometimes can be ugly or dark, but it brings forward emotion and challenges one's thought processes. Pieces that broaden your mind and make you question your values, what is acceptable versus just tolerable. Static images that are able to convey a whole story, relationship, or deep-seated feeling.
It's not just about being pretty — or shock value. It's about taking things beyond “shock” and turning them into a new experience that expands the viewers' scope and makes them see things in a new light.
What artists do you take inspiration from, and why?
A lot of my inspiration comes from music, and not visual arts. It merges with my visual perception of what I am working on at the time. Antony and the Johnsons has been one of the most inspiring artists for me lately — they are excellent at putting deep complex emotions into seemingly simple musical forms.
From a visual standpoint, during my trip to the U.K. in 2002 I discovered the work of Jenny Saville, and I was fortunate to see Lucian Freud's retrospective show at the Tate Modern. Those two artists created a turning point for me. Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and other abstract expressionists have also had a great influence on my work. By working in large-scale, broad, expressive strokes, I try to combine the raw energy of the expressionism with the relatively restrictive human shape and the story within it.
Art is a game, with no restrictions or rules to play. Just play away and enjoy the freedom. Make your every step an act of art, make people see the beauty of ordinary things, be serious, play, then mix it all up and see if anybody understands what you are doing.