Vera Iliatova: Days of Never at Monya Rowe

On view though April 13th, at Monya Rowe’s second-floor gallery in Chelsea, are eight exquisite paintings by the Russian-born artist Vera Iliatova (NAP #86). The artist’s paintings are best described as wooded landscapes, but the buildings and bridges of cities can often be seen through tree’s branches, giving the impression that figures have wandered just beyond an urban environment. Introductory text written by the Ohio painter George Rush best captures this notion. He writes: “Strange things start to happen this far out. They are beyond the limits of the city now, the women...Gone are the signifiers of stability.”

The enigmatic quality of the paintings is heightened by Iliatova’s technical mastery of the medium. I recently had the opportunity to ask the artist more about her painting practice, artistic influences, and the sources for her imagery. – Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Days of Never
Vera Iliatova | Days Of Never, 2013, oil on canvas, 78 by 60 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York
Installation view, Vera Iliatova: Days of Never at Monya Rowe Gallery. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York. 

Nadiah Fellah: George Rush’s written introduction picks up on the idea of a mysterious or unspoken narrative that your paintings might imply. Was there a story that you were trying to tell with this body of work? If so, what are some elements of it? Are the cityscapes in the backgrounds of paintings like Simple Men real or imagined?

Vera Iliatova: My paintings start with purely visual ideas: a certain kind of light and a certain kind of space that I think would be interesting to paint at the moment.  The process begins as an abstraction and slowly the painting evolves into a composite of different pictorial elements.  I know that eventually the painting will be populated with figures but I don't have a pre-determined narrative that I am consciously aware of.  As the painting develops, it begins to evoke certain experiences, either from my own life, or from things that I have seen in films or read about.  The space in Simple Men is both real and imagined.  The trees in this painting act as an atmospheric field in an abstract sense but also serve as a middle ground for the figures.  The architecture is based on Gorky Park in Moscow (where I traveled a few years ago with my friends who are also in the painting).  But the title is a reference to a Hal Hartley film of the same name.

Simple Men
Vera Iliatova | Simple Men, 2013, oil on canvas, 42 by 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

NF: Your works are those of a talented colorist, the combinations conjure filtered afternoon light, or fading dusk, and really create a mood in each painting. Can you talk your use of color, and how you use it to build mood and atmosphere?

VI: Thank you for this observation, Nadiah.  Color is very important in my process and it is the first thing that I think about when I start each painting.  For me, color is what grounds each painting in a real experience regardless of how invented the narrative becomes.  All my paintings start from direct observation of landscape, often from the view outside of my studio window.  Eventually, the space in the paintings becomes more invented than real, but the color always stays specific to the observed light.  I am constantly stunned by Matisse’s laconic way of representing light through color.  I also spend a lot of time looking at the way Jane Freilicher, Louisa Matthiasdottir and Fairfield Porter use color in their paintings to create atmosphere and light.

Major in A Minor
Vera Iliatova | Major In A Minor Key, 2013, oil on canvas, 30 by 26 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

NF: In the past your paintings have been tied to commentary on post-Soviet Russia, and particularly the condition of women there. How does your own background figure into your work? Is there any knowledge of your personal history that’s useful for a viewer to know in the interpretation of your paintings?

VI: I left Saint Petersburg when I was 16, which is a pivotal age for anyone but especially for a Russian teenager (kids in Russia tend to grow up faster).   It was also 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union, and even my friends who stayed in the country felt a defined separation between the past and the present.  I make my paintings here, in the United States, but every time I travel back to Russia, I am surprised at how much of a connection I feel between what I see there and what I paint. The paintings are not so much a commentary but my memories and interpretations of the experience.

Sad Songs
Vera Iliatova | Let Themselves Be Sad Songs, 2013, oil on canvas, 24 by 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York
Swan Song
Vera Iliatova |Dancing To The Swan Song, 2013, oil on canvas, 42 by 32 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

NF: Building a little more on the question of gender, your works often feature groups of young women. In many of them they are in positions of camaraderie, in lush and sunny surroundings—like in Days of Never and Dancing to the Swan Song. However, in one of the few paintings with male figures, Simple Men, two men seem to be involved in an altercation, in more of a desolate environment. Can you talk about the contrasts displayed through these works? Was it intentional?

VI: The female figures are based on self-portraits (I have multiple mirrors in the studio and have accumulated quite an extensive wardrobe over the years, courtesy of my friends and second-hand shops).  Rather than being individuals, they become projections for different psychological or emotional states.  There are often men in my paintings, but more in the background, like a filming crew. For my previous show “Terrain Vague,” I made a small painting, Excursions, that depicted men traversing the landscape.  I started wondering what men would look like if they were dominating the landscape: their personalities, their activities, what clothes they would wear.  It was exciting to paint men because I felt more distant from the figures and there was a surprise in the narrative that they implied

Vera Iliatova | Excursions, 2010, oil on linen, 10 by 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

NF: Who are your artistic influences? Are there any artist’s work that particularly inspires you?

VI: There are of course many.  I love art history and looking at art and I find solutions to painting problems in the paintings of art history.  I spend a lot of time at the Met looking closely at paintings.  Frequently, I revisit works by Florine Stettheimer, Charlotte Salomon and Susan Lichtman.  I love the interior nature of their subject matter, the completed worlds that they create within their narratives, and their approaches to creating light and color in their paintings.  On a more theoretical level, I spend a lot of time reading about film history and watching films.  My conversations on temporal and spatial structures in film narratives with theorist Dudley Andrew are an endless inspiration for my work.

Person You Choose
Vera Iliatova | Person You Choose, 2013, oil on canvas, 42 by 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York
Vera Iliatova | Saturnalia, 2013, oil on canvas, 30 by 26 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

Vera Iliatova: Days of Never is on view at Monya Rowe Gallery in New York through April 13th.


Vera Iliatova was born in Russia in 1975, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA in Painting/ Printmaking from Yale University, and also completed a residency at Skowhegan School of Art in 2004. Her work has been included in exhibitions across the US and Europe. More of her work can be seen at the artist’s website:

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

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