Exhibition Review

R.M Vaughan, The Globe and Mail, July 29, 2011


Ilya Gefter’s suite of misty, achingly delicate paintings are a quiet respite.
Gefter’s crafty focus pulling/focus releasing causes the viewer to first seek out the solid, fully materialized objects being studied, and then to drift toward the liminal spaces, the backgrounds and sunsets, all underpainted veils of muted colour. Absence and presence, negative and positive space, are neatly, even obsessively, balanced, but Gefter’s works are not overly painterly or forced. 

Sleight of hand rarely feels so honest.



Ilya Gefter: Spaces and Figures 2011

Exhibition Catalog Essay


The following dialogue reflects a studio visit on October 11th, 2011 and correspondence between the artist Ilya Gefter and critic Leia Gore:


How does your latest series differ from those created in the past?


My recent paintings have become somewhat larger, and the brushwork… looser.  In the past, I depended more on direct observation, working mainly from life.  Lately I have become less concerned with mimesis and more involved with the language of paint and its potential to communicate experiences.  But it's hard to say, seeing these changes accurately requires time and distance.



Your subject matter is largely comprised of portraits (often people you know intimately) and landscapes—all of it very contemporary.  Working with traditional materials and techniques, you transcribe the present through the lens of the past. 


A painting is a reaction to my visual environment and inner impulses.  I paint what's around me and what's important to me.  This choice potentially allows me to extend my human experience into the professional practice, to marry life and artifice.


While I look at my environment, there’s another gaze directed into the past, into the history of art.  The impressions these two gazes gather simmer somewhere within my brain or psyche, and they gradually emerge as paintings.



What do you mean by artifice?


It’s the knowledge of one’s chosen medium—understanding of its properties and expressive potential.  In painting, I think, it is primarily about the intricacies of arranging colours and shapes.



Nearly all of your paintings are created from observation.  Lately, you have branched out to embrace photographs as visual reference.  How has this impacted the aesthetics of your work, and how you view your praxis within an art historical framework?


Photography is a tool.  But it's not just a visual reference—a reminder of what was “out there.”  As importantly, it's a filter between the eye and reality.  The expansiveness of the visible world and the range of information it offers are overwhelming.  The camera establishes a certain distance.  It helps to select and edit, allowing greater freedom and control over the visual phenomena.


I think artists have always used whatever tools were available to them.  In 19th Century BC Egypt these were regular grids.  Today these can be digital photography and software.  I don’t think it’s untraditional to resort to non-painterly aids.



On the topic of Egypt, let’s take a moment to discuss your affinity for Fayum portraits—small encaustic paintings from Ancient Egypt that recall the faces of those who have passed away.


I have always been astounded by the Fayum Portraits.  When I was about five, I had my first art lessons and I remember the teacher showing reproductions of these ancient works.  I later “rediscovered” them during my studies in the US.  The unity of art and artifice has rarely been as absolute as in these modest pieces from nearly 2,000 years ago.  They taught me a lot about the craft.  On a more fundamental level, they show how transcendent and magical a painting can be. 



Your knowledge of European art history from antiquity through the birth of modern art is extensive and, no doubt, influential.  In particular, you employ a sculptural sense of light that can be traced back to the colour theory of the Renaissance, and minimal application of white reminiscent of the calculated placement of white tiles for modelling in ancient Greek and Roman mosaics. 


It has been essential for me to find a sense of tradition within the baffling stylistic pluralism of the contemporary art world.  Tradition is a range of common principles of artifice that connect diverse schools and periods like invisible threads.  These are principles of orchestrating a painting, and of aesthetic transcription of reality onto a surface.


I see Greco-Roman art as a matrix of these principles… so much is concentrated in the works of these cultures!  The corporeal sense of light we see in Roman paintings and mosaics is clear evidence of the ancient artisans’ understanding of human perception and their attentiveness to reality.



Would you say that your sense of light is what sets you apart as a representational painter?


The principle of light, for me, lies at the core of representation.  Representation is not necessarily a matter of making something recognizable.  It's about overarching sensations that permeate the fabric of visual experience, and light is surely one of the most essential ones.  



The use of Contre-Jour lends a special quality to your landscapes.  Roughly translated, it means “against the daylight,” or painting objects illuminated from behind.  Did a particular moment or experience inspire you to paint these muted landscapes with brilliant, jewel-toned skies? 


This preference developed gradually.  I made numerous landscape studies in diverse lighting conditions.  While painting outdoors I saw that oblique light illuminating the forms from behind lends very unusual qualities to common scenery.  This kind of light makes facts disappear within atmospheric ambience and turns the mundane into the magical.


In order to experience the light and to transcribe it onto canvas I had to paint en plein air.  This can be quite inconvenient.  While being involved in this hugely intense and intimate process, a painter is not only vulnerable to the elements, but also to onlookers.  Painting outdoors in a populated area is like making out in public.  Except that strangers don’t photograph couples as persistently, and don’t ask, “are you doing it for fun or for money?”  For some reason, these reactions are quite common when I set up an easel outdoors.



Every artist hopes to convey a message or have an emotional impact on their viewers.  What do you hope your audience will take away from your work?


Naturally, I hope that the viewers will somehow be affected by my work…  These can be very subtle experiences, and what they are, is each viewer's private matter.  I hope my paintings will facilitate an experience—first and foremost an aesthetic experience, perhaps also an emotional one…  I am not very interested in making statements or conveying decipherable messages…


Roman murals, Early Renaissance frescos, paintings by Rembrandt, Giacometti, Morandi are some of the artworks that I keep revisiting.  Each and every immersion in one of these pieces is a stirring, transformative event.  An insane ambition to produce something of comparable aesthetic power is one of my motivations to keep painting…



The technical skill you possess has peppered your career with accolades.  But sometimes a strong focus on technical mastery can bump heads with inspiration.  Do you ever struggle with your work on a conceptual level? 


The technical skill has also drawn criticism…  I personally can’t see it as something detrimental.  Having inspiration with no skill is like trying to catch fish with bare hands.  Success is possible, but chances are slim.  Technical skill is the net.  It's a tool.  Problems emerge when one focuses on the tool itself and not on what it is meant to do.   And that is always a struggle for me: reminding myself that a painting is not about "how it is made," but about what it expresses.



In your studio, you told me, “There are things you want to say… and there are things that are true.”  Can you discuss the notion of honesty in your artwork?


Discussing honesty is a tough task…  For me, it’s primarily an absolute commitment to the intuitive sense of what works and what does not work in a painting.  It is also a matter of avoiding any theatrical or forced gestures; of refraining from doing anything overly flashy for the sake of making an effect.  I am always more concerned with a personal aesthetic experience. 



Last but not least, do you have a favourite self-portrait?



If there’s a favourite work I have, it is invariably the “next one.”


I see my “vocation of the visual” as a search suspended between two “poles” which are the motives, and the justifications of my efforts. First, there is the experience of observable reality. This experience is highly subjective, personal, and intense. Second, there is the desire to attain an ever-elusive internal coherence of colors, planes, and lines on a two-dimensional surface.

My process is both intuitive and intellectual. For it revolves around the attempts to infuse a two-dimensional plane with subjective experiences, and to impart coherence and structure to the visual reflection of these experiences.

The process of my work is a dialogue between the subjective experience and the more objective ideal of order and harmony. My pieces, therefore, are always born somewhere between the Experience and the Ideal. As they grow, they strive to reach the unrepeatable particularity of the former and the utmost beauty of the latter.


Statement for an Exhibition “Old World. New World”

The work in the present show was done over the past three years during my stays in Italy and in Israel. Every piece is done from observation and constitutes a visual engagement with a place, be it an ancient ruin, a palazzo, or an anonymous residential structure. While trying to address the specific visual texture of each motif, I strive to distill the experience of nature to its essentials: a sense of form and a sense of light. The way urban and natural forms catch light is what really makes up a motif.

Light can both reveal and distort the forms. But in either case, it invariably imposes a visual hierarchy and geometry on the fortuitous urban or natural mosaic. My work hopes to capture the ever-shifting geometry of light and to turn it into the geometry of a painting, into a pictorial order that would somehow reflect an experience of a motif. Communication of an experience is what, after-all, turns artifice into art.

The principal media I use are oil colors, and inks. The majority of the pieces in the show are ink washes. It is an aqueous medium imposing numerous limitations. Ink’s flow is hard to control; its contact with paper is irreversible. It gives only a frugal range of tones to operate with. But within the limitations of this simple yet demanding medium a sensitive application can open up its stunning potential to evoke the sensations of form, light, and space. These three principles are what I go after in my work.


Design: Marina Levitan Gurfinkel, web developing: letatlinstudio.com