Critics’ Picks

Vera Iliatova, Let Themselves Be Sad Songs, 2013, oil on canvas, 24 x 18".

Vera Iliatova, Let Themselves Be Sad Songs, 2013, oil on canvas, 24 x 18".

New York

Vera Iliatova

Monya Rowe Gallery
224 West 30 Street No. 304
February 21–April 27, 2013

“Nostalgia—it’s delicate, but potent,” says Don Draper of the American period drama Mad Men. “Nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” This particular brand of manipulation is familiar territory for painter Vera Iliatova, who in her third solo show at this gallery is proving herself a consummate craftsman of this complex emotion.

Her eight elegiac paintings on display each take the rough form of a landscape, but what drives this artist’s moody remembrances is the figurative element within each work: a nostalgic surrogate who is always beautiful, winsome, and perfectly attired. Person You Choose, 2013, for instance, a golden fall landscape scene resplendent in shades of orange, yellow, and brown, is punctuated at the bottom left by a quintessentially erudite young woman wearing a fashionably oversized jacket, tresses of ochre hair wisping across her brow. It is easy to identify with this comely girl, somewhat due to the ghosts of her vanquished and semiforgotten colleagues that lay painted in blocky Cézannean fashion above. In Major In A Minor Key, 2013, Iliatova tweaks her usual figure/ground dynamic by pushing a post-Impressionistic still life (composed of a cheery birthday cake and a pair of forlorn holiday flowerpots) to the foreground, while two preppy girls approach from out of a wintry wooded sunset. The surroundings, as if in a faint memory, break apart into spiky sprigs and slender darts of black, laid over sumptuous bands of blue, red, and grey. Even the tablecloth in the lowermost section of the painting splinters into jagged shards of furious orange that threaten to topple its holy triumvirate.

Today’s practice of oil painting is itself fueled by nostalgia, reminding us of a purer time when art seemed to have a sacred quality, either literally or figuratively. Iliatova is clearly adept at pointing to the various peaks of painting’s heydays, reminding us as much of the Belle Époque as the height of Abstract Expressionism. What’s remarkable about her practice, however, is the way she uses different strategies to describe not only memory but also the fading of memory that stirs in us a longing to be reunited with our past.