In conversation with VERA ILIATOVA

In preparation for the upcoming inaugural solo exhibition 'VERA ILIATOVA: Homecoming' (On view: 22 January - 30 May 2021), a collaborative project between Zephyr and Maize, Monya Rowe Gallery and Nathalie Karg Gallery, our Creative Director and exhibition curator Varia Serova has interviewed the artist about her artistic influences, aspirations, and her current work and projects.

Featured work: © Monya Rowe Gallery and Nathalie Karg Gallery.

January 2021 © Vera Iliatova for Zephyr and Maize.

And Dogs Will Howl For Us, 2020. Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 ins.

Varia Serova: You are a first-generation artist. How did your initial interest in painting develop?

Vera Iliatova: I was never a kid who drew a lot. My mother always dragged me to the museums in Saint-Petersburg. I remember being very bored at the Hermitage, sitting on a puff cushion in the middled of a gallery, waiting for her to finish slowly looking at every single painting in the room. When I moved to the United Stated at the age of 16, I felt very isolated in the American school and couldn’t understand what was going on in my classes because of my limited English. Then, in the art class, the teacher showed us a formula on how to draw a face. I drew some portraits that elicited admiration from my classmates, who otherwise treated me with polite indifference. Then in college, I took my first real drawing class and absolutely fell in love with the process.

VS: Was your family supportive of your art practice?

VI: Yes, my family was very supportive. My mother always believed that it is important to chose a profession in life that one is passionate about.

VS: Let’s talk about your artistic formation. You have studied at Sorbonne, received a BA from Brandeis University and an MFA in Painting/Printmaking from Yale. Are there some of the lessons you’ve learned back then, that you still find helpful in your day-to-day practice?

VI: While in Paris, I spent most of my time in the museums and movie theaters. I remember there was a two months long transportation strike the winter that I studied there. Most classes were canceled but museums and movie theaters were still open. At the time, the admission to the movie theater cost as much as buying a sandwich to go, but it was warmer inside the theaters. I would skip lunch and I spent many hours watching old and independent films. I also briefly held an internship at the Restoration Department in the Louvre Museum.

Brandeis taught me how to look at painting in an analytical way, the work ethic in the studio and the perseverance to manage through difficult moments of lack of inspiration. And Yale gave me a great training in the conceptual side of painting history. I am also grateful for the important friendships that I developed during my training years.

At Yale, I took a film history class with Professor Dudley Andrew. His teachings and his writings were an absolutely eye opening in terms of my understanding of narrative language in visual arts. We are good friends now and I cherish our conversations.

The Ties That Bind, 2019. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 ins.

Becoming, Part 1, 2019. Oil on linen, 16 x 20 ins.

VS: What external influences out of the art school could you recall being fascinated or inspired with: books, museums, gallery shows, certain people or surroundings, perhaps?

VI: I think all of the above, plus movies. Like most kids in Russia of my generation, I was always an avid reader. Reading long novels with complicated narratives and unhappy endings occupied most of my free time. I remember reading Maupassant and Dostoyevsky at age 11 and weeping at the hopelessness of life.

The most important influence in my formation was growing up in Saint-Petersburg. We spent so much time walking on the streets with my friends and absorbing the atmosphere of the city. Going to the movies was also a big part of my early adolescents. In middle school, our history teacher took us on a class trip to watch Fellini’s “Casanova. I don’t know what he was thinking but needless to say we all left the movie theater absolutely baffled. I also saw my first Eric Rohmer film as an early teen in Saint Petersburg.

VS: You’ve previously mentioned such influences as Jane Freilicher, Louisa Matthiasdottir and Fairfield Porter, specifically the way they use color to create atmosphere and light. Are there any other influences present in your work?

VI: Currently, I am obsessed with Watteau, Manet and watercolors of interiors by Turner. I am also closely looking at the photography of Francesca Woodman and Deborah Turbeville. There are many contemporary artists who inspire me but Ellen Berkenblit and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Florian Kewer are currently on my mind. I love the psychology in Berkenblit’s work, the drama of restrain and passion, and the complexity of abstract language. I am moved by the manner in which Yiadon-Boakye’s invents and paints the protagonists in her painting. The emotional resonance in her works comes from the touch of her brush and the pace with which the figure unfolds itself to the viewer. The empathy that the paintings illicit is palpable. Krewer’s paintings bring memories of my adolescence in Saint-Petersburg, atmospheric evenings and the elusive and violent romance of the street life. It’s like the girls in my paintings have been dreaming about the boys in his, but nothing could never really had happen between them, if you know what I mean.

Untitled, 2018. Oil on linen, 16 x 16 ins.

VS: You have established yourself successfully in oil painting, was this an initial interest, or did it develop through time?

VI: It’s always been oil painting. I love how malleable it is as material and it can be done in solitude.

VS: Looking back at your first shows in 2000s which took place in different parts of the US and, later on, around the world, and your enrollment in the Skowhegan School of Art, how did these experiences resonate with you as a painter making your own way in the art world?

VI: Skowhegan School of Art was magical. I was accepted at Skowhegan after three years of living and painting in relative isolation in Portsmith, NH. To find myself in such vibrant place with so many amazing artists was a true gift. My Skowhegan classmates were brilliant artists and a very supportIve group. Working along them made me more confident about my work.

I had my first solo in New York City in 2008 with Monya Rowe Gallery and I have been showing with her for thirteen years. I was fortunate to find an art dealer who understood my paintings and respected my process. I am now starting to work with Nathalie Karg gallery who is also known for her great eye and has a great program.

My husband Craig Taylor is an abstract painter. We met during my graduate school years at Yale. His paintings and his intelligence have always been an inspiration in my studio.

VS: Let’s talk about your studio time: the environment and the process. What are some of the important aspects of your studio practice?

VI: Most importantly, I need the uninterrupted time to be in the studio in order to dream through the act of painting. The studio is full of art books, magazines and photographs that I use as source material. There are also props: wardrobe for the characters in the paintings, a couple of mannequins, dry and fresh flowers, the view out of the window.

VS: What is the process like, is it structured or improvised, planned or spontaneous, how is it staged and how long does it take? (You could reply in general, or use specific examples.)

VI: In terms of how the paintings evolves, the process is both intuitive and also grounded in my investigation to art history. Sometimes painting feels like a mathematical process: I set up problems of space, light and narrative and then I work out multiple way to resolve these problems. The revision is the key aspect of my process , and the works remain abstract for a long time. I work on several paintings at a time, and I also let unfinished paintings sit in the studio for a while so I can make decisions over the time spent looking at them.

Magic Mountain, 2017. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 ins.

VS: Do you make any preliminary drawings or sketches?

VI: A few years ago, I got tired of worrying about color and mixing paint, and spent 6 month only drawing. Many of the drawings are now the starting points for the paintings.

VS: You’ve once described the use of color and light as dominant forces guiding your practice, is that still true?

VI: Yes, it is still true. I like to shape the paintings through the atmospheric layers and find the light that makes the narratives convincing.

VS: Characters in your paintings: are they real or imagined, the product of your subconscious?

VI: They are both real and imagined, and the piece is finished when my subconscious responds to what takes place in the painting.

VS: What about the landscape?

VI: It is a similar process with the landscape. I paint by looking out of the window but the landscape slowly becomes invented and recalls something out of my past.

VS: In the context of your work, visual narratives reminiscing the snapshots from American teleseries and Soviet coming-of-age films are present – bringing in the touch of the modern times and mass culture. Am I reading it correctly?

VI: Absolutely! I love the American teleseries that are set in a high school because of the melodrama and artifice in depiction of the young people. I think I have watched all of the ones that were made since the early 90s. And I love the sense of nostalgia that Soviet coming-of-age films contain. One of my favorite directors from that genre is Sergei Solovyov. His film “100 Days After Childhood” has enchanting atmosphere of Watteau paintings and clever references to Romanticism, but with self awareness and slight irony. He believes in his characters but he also smiles at them. Solovyov also made “Assa” which was pivotal for my generation. But “100 Days After Childhood” is my favorite.

Secret History, 2015. Oil on linen, 30 x 26 ins.

They Came To Flower, 2015. Oil on linen,16 x 16 ins.

Apparuit, 2019. Oil on linen,16 x 20 ins.

VS: Your protagonists are mostly female, and the themes you develop are predominantly concerned with female interactions and psyche. Do you see yourself as a feminist artist?

VI: I am a feminist because I believe that women should be able to pursue any career they chose, whether it is art or something else. I also believe in the right of women to make choices about our lives and our bodies. As far as being a feminist artist, it is important for me to depict stories of women from a viewpoint of a woman. But I paint my paintings to understand my own experience, so the narratives and my connection to the protagonists is very personal. Hopefully the other viewers can find something personal in them as well.

VS: In your recent body of work, what are the issues you are most interested in?

VI: Right now I am working on larger paintings and increasing the scale of the figures in them. I am also thinking about the nature of the narrative in the paintings. Some people think that my work is a bit dark and unsettling. If that is an important quality for me, then why? And also, how to the protagonists evolve and relate to each other from painting to painting? I am trying to paint through these questions.

VS: Do objects your protagonists are surrounded with carry hidden messages? Some imagery appears to be symbolic and reoccurring from painting to painting: flowers, sculpture, mirrors, fences and stairs. In Sequestered and Apart (2020), almost all of these objects are present at once. What meaning do these carry?

VI: I don’t think that there are any hidden messages, but lately the architectural elements that I am using in my work are more directly linked to the architecture of Saint Petersburg.

VS: Certainly, your personal life experiences have a profound influence on the direction your work takes. From the personal perspective, in which ways do you break the barriers between art and the self, and when do you let them remain?

VI: This is a very interesting question. I don’t want my work to be a quick read so I don’t include overt signifiers that would tie the paintings to my experiences growing up in Soviet Russia. My identity has been formed by leaving the city where I was born and that I deeply loved and finding my way in the American culture where I always will be a bit of an outsider. I make paintings to better understand my own story, but I am also making paintings to investigate the language of the history of painting and how it exists in my current time.

VS: Were there any major changes in the direction of your work?

VI: A big shift came few years after graduate school. I moved to Portsmouth, NH which is a coastal town and I started spending a lot of time walking on the beach. Until then, I only lived in urban areas. So my understanding of nature changed and the landscape became more dominant in the work. I also started exploring isometric perspective instead of the Western one point perspective. Since then, the shifts in the work are not as drastic but lately the mood has been more melancholic. Currently, I am reducing the color in the paintings to the palette of chromatic greys.

VS: Looking back, what were some of the personal highlights that you recall from the recent years of your career?

VI: I am grateful for the response from the viewers of my work. I am glad that the personal experience can also become interesting to people with very different backgrounds than mine. I am also happy with receiving press for my shows and grateful to the writers for taking time to write about my work. In 2017 and 2018 my paintings were included in shows at the museums which was very exciting. And I am currently getting ready for my first solo exhibition in Europe. It will take place in November 2021 at Fahrenheit Madrid in Spain. I am working towards my first solo exhibition with Nathalie Karg Gallery. I am also thrilled about this project with Zephyr and Maize and working with you, Varia, as this is the first time I am working with a curator from Saint-Petersburg.

VS: It sounds very exciting, and it is my pleasure to work with you, Vera. Moving to the next question, you left St. Petersburg at sixteen during rather tremulous times, do you still recall some things from your childhood in Russia/Soviet Union? Do some of these recollections find way into your current narrative?

VI: Most of my narratives are formed by these recollections. I remember the styles of school uniforms, the inventiveness that we had to apply to our wardrobes to look on point in the ever-fashionable Saint-Petersburg, the relationships with my classmates, the coming of age on the streets of the city.

VS: You were practically a teenager when you moved: was the period of the adapting to the new culture easy, or were there some challenges?

VI: The first years of the adaptation were horrible. I was afraid to speak English, I was embarrassed by being an immigrant and I spent my first year in the American high school crying every day. I missed my friends and I missed my city. Then the longing turned into sadness and eventually it became a bittersweet memory. But I still wonder on a daily basis what would happened if I hadn’t left? Or what could I be like if I didn’t miss Russia so much.

VS: Since 2003, you have combined your artistic and teaching practices. What was the secret to successfully balance between the two, to raising the new generation of artists and still have enough energy and to create prolifically?

VI: I wish there were a secret that lead to success in this! For now, I am just trying to do my best. I love teaching because I am inspired by my students and they keep me on my toes and my thinking sharp. They also inspire the narratives in my work. But the real secret is that I am very tired and I would love to go on vacation to some spa far far away from just a week so I can sleep.

VS: Last but not least, what are you working on right now?

VI: I am getting ready for several solo shows that will take place in 2021 and 2022. Hopefully the world does not implode by then.

The Homecoming, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 22 x 30 ins.

Nothing is Real, 2019. Oil on linen, 16 x 20 ins.