In the small rectangular space of Monya Rowe Gallery, up on the 10th floor of a midtown building, Vera Iliatova’s solo show – titled “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” – takes her viewer on a surreal, nostalgic walk reminiscent of 1980s school day walks in St Petersburg, Russia. Slightly more than half a dozen moderately sized and small oil-and-acrylic paintings completed within the past year hang quitely on white walls. Iliatova reflects on her own past with deep longing for times both missed and long since passed, bringing strange, forlorn, cross-continental energy into the depicted spaces.
One striking factor in all of these paintings is her master skill of composition. Specifically, the complexity of composition in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2020) echoes Nicolas Poussin’s Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man (1655). The poses in both paintings are derived from Roman antiquity, as if statues came to life and were captured in a still. The stillness in Iliatova and Poussin’s work is eerily similar but the subjects could not be more different. Iliatova handles multi- figure compositions with Poussin’s grace and, in this particular work, also ties in the architecture of stairs with organic rhythm. While the staged nature of her painting – in a contemporary context – may at first glance appear uncomfortable, the classical construction feels unmistakably familiar. In this case, teenage girls with wandering glances appear hanging out together, but remain emotionally removed from each other in an industrial building amid an anachronistic landscape outside the window. Iliatova’s painting thrives on that familiarity: young women, most likely school-age (right about when Iliatova herself moved to the United States from USSR), are positioned in poses suggesting conversation and interaction. Upon closer observation, however, every single figure appears implicitly lonely, gazing down or past the others. Where Poussin’s depictions of such gazes and poses play up the drama, in Iliatova’s work they mirror a state of being, one representing both nostalgia for a time since passed and a lost opportunity for connection. Upon first glance, one of her other paintings in the show, The Ties That Bind (2019), has a similar sentiment to Poussin’s The Finding of Moses (1638). Rhythm and composition are striking in the same way, but the meaning and the somewhat bizarre arrangement of young women in a park in Iliatova’s work sets them apart from the 17th century painter by bringing them into the contemporary.
Similarly, Iliatova’s color palette reflects on the particularity of time and place. Granite grays cast a shadow over this body of work. The warm pink gray colors are reminiscent of riverbank pedestrian paths along the Neva and Fontanka Rivers in St. Petersburg where so many school girls have spent evenings hanging out after classes. Iliatova uses a distinct palette – well known to any St. Petersburg native – evoking the region’s long, dark winters, its rainy summers. The stone city that was built on swamps by Peter the Great is close to its inhabitants’ hearts, even the ones who left at a budding age.
Iliatova uses paint to visualize the intangible subject of nostalgia. Even if the viewer is unfamiliar with the setting, there is a clear, recognizable sense of longing for the past. She doesn’t just yearn for one time or place, though, but a full bouquet of places, styles, relationships and interactions. Even though the light and feel is straight out of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s landscapes, the buildings in some of Iliatova’s works, such as The Big Reveal (2020), are somewhat industrial, bringing it into a modern context. The landscape is perhaps a wink at 18th and 19th-century painters, but the most fascinating mishmash occurs in the fashion of the figures. The combination of sweaters, dresses and patterns ranges from the 1960s to the 1990s and even today, where vintage clothing finds a new life through thrift shops. For example, a reclining figure in the foreground in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible wears a turquoise dress; this dress is reminiscent of a 1980s-era Bloomingdale’s catalog, but the adjacent figure could easily be taken as a contemporary passerby on the street in Gowanus. The mystery comes from the artist herself, who finds her models’ outfits in crevices of Brooklyn’s thrifting shops. The choice is conscious and deliberate as Iliatova paints and repaints every figure to be both relatable yet a standalone monument to time. How does one capture time in a still image? Iliatova seizes these moments by painting her subjects in passive actions such as reading, stretching or gazing outward.
The painterly application of brushstrokes suggests both timing and an allusion to classical painting. Iliatova is a superbly skilled painter, who depicts her world with poetic intelligence. She employs an academic style, showing off the gestural nature of figure painting. Every stroke reflects a motion, yet everything is precise, with intention. Every element of application is thorough with realistic and painstakingly depicted figures to almost Gerhard Richter-esque, blurred backgrounds. She marries elements of the history of painting within bare square inches of her paintings, but does so seamlessly and effortlessly. This expert mix of contemporary and classical style, combined with surreal anachronism transport viewers to another time and place while maintaining an air of familiarity.