Veronica Smirnoff, Evening Annals, 2013. Egg Tempera on Wood; 180 x 80 cm.
To celebrate its launch, Traction interviewed five artists featured in 2013′s ‘The Future Can Wait’, London’s annual curated exhibition to coincide with Frieze Week. One such conversation was with Veronica Smirnoff.
You employ imagery traced from a huge and varied body of historical material. Is there a particular source you are constantly drawn back to?
An abiding sense of art history is ever present in my work. I have many artists’ catalogues/books spread out before me as I work. In a way, it helps address the ethos of real life rather than topicality.
Sources from pre-renaissance and icon painting as well as newspaper clippings, periodical cutouts, and media culture are being reassembled, tested for authenticity in an emotional and critical way, defined through constant analysis of things that surround me and their relationships to each other.
Precarious assumption of a story arises through forensic scrutiny of referents, denuded from their original meaning. This opens up a certain tension between acknowledgement and rejection.
The one place I keep on coming back to is San Francesco Church in Arezzo, Tuscany where Piero della Francesca’s most celebrated frescoes are, ‘The Legend of The True Cross’. Their arresting sentiment is boundlessly inspiring.
Veronica Smirnoff, Mona. Egg tempera on wood; 190 x 80 cm.
You paintings draw from myth and folklore, yet reflect an intimate process of selection and creation. How do these shared legacies relate to your personal identity as an artist?
The search for a perfect aesthetic is a part of everyone’s experience.
I have always been interested in the construction of the iconic, the “Icon” as the object of worship and its relationship to “popular art” with a wide repertoire of signs: the flat moulding of figures, schematic linearity and cut-out two-dimensional quality, the abstract effects of colour, flatness and tilted depth. There’s nothing accidental about its inner logic- the sensitivity to relative positions of objects in a visual composition and expressive use of lines; iconographic registers are all about what’s signified and how.
The symbolic appearance of my paintings is a red herring, a platform for addressing the allegorical discourse, ideas about human body and ultimate justification of artistic representation dealt in parcels of contrasting logic and often anecdotal vignettes. The use of historical languages conjures up different sensibility through the transformative process of painting.
Russian silver age philosopher Pavel Florensky believed that there are only two types of culture-one orientated towards the material world, grounded in Kantian philosophy and one routed in generally spiritual and irrational human experience. This dichotomy in pictorial terms is very intriguing to me.
Veronica Smirnoff, Beyond The Shore, 2013. Egg Tempera on Wood; 180 x 90 cm.
You practice is quite unique in its commitment to traditional processes: can you tell us a bit about the methods you employ in your painting?
The work is constructed with traditional elements - gesso and pigment ground from semi-precious stones, mixed with egg yoke and white wine to make the paints. The wooden boards I paint on are made of oak in Russian monasteries and blessed. This undoubtedly lends the work a religious undertone but at the same time heightens the focus on this conjunction of the old and new.
Anachronism of Egg Tempera technique nods toward Byzantine representation and Asian tradition, which dissolve realism by rendering its subjects as visions. I am fascinated by their pointed messages and modes of conceptualizing the landscape where Nature is seen through the prism of culture.
The process of surface construction reveals the technique; layer by layer, the surface is encrusted with palpable texture, leaving some areas bare, some built up in volume before being sanded down to its sedimentary substance.
Both your extremely skilled style of painting and the complexity of your compositions suggest a high level of planning that goes into your work, yet there’s a strong sense of intuition present throughout. How do instinct and spontaneity play out in your making?
Some paintings evolve out of structured drawings, some from the books I read and some from a montage of imagery that steers its way straight onto a panel. The art historical references are important in this sense of interchangeable nature and the idea of the ‘lack of the original’ in the contemporary culture. They are less about appropriation and more about intuition, launching exploration into the very depth of imagination, fantasy and myth, acknowledging beauty and anxiety, splendour and isolation, realism and absurdity.
Where can we see your work in the coming months?
I am currently working on a new body of work. My paintings are on show as part of the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, which launched this September.
Veronica Smirnoff’s work can be seen at The Future Can Wait at Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1B 4DA until 17 October and the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art until 31 January 2014.
Visit her website for more information on her practice.