exhibition

Candida Stevens Gallery

Blue Sky Red

Hosted by: Candida Stevens Gallery

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What's On / Past exhibitions / Blue Sky Red

Past Exhibition Information

May 22, 2024 - May 26, 2024

Gallery 12 & Wing Gallery

Candida Stevens Gallery

Candida Stevens Gallery is delighted to present Blue Sky Red, the largest solo exhibition of Veronica Smirnoff’s work to date in the UK.

 

Offering a unique opportunity to trace the artist’s development over the last twenty years, this exhibition showcases the artist’s expertise and commitment to the medium of egg tempera painting. Generally associated with Byzantine icons and the Italian pre-Renaissance, there are few contemporary artists using egg tempera as their primary medium today and even fewer who use it as experimentally and with as much versatility as Smirnoff. From small-scale portraits to fantastical landscapes, these are works that challenge contemporary preconceptions of the medium and draw the viewer into a realm of curious, open-ended and fantastical narratives.

The exhibition also includes the first showing of three large-scale embroideries that the artist has commissioned over the last year, exploring the effects of translating her work into textile. In each case, she has selected a small panel painting to be digitally printed onto a large piece of fabric, which has then been hand-embroidered to emphasise detail and form. Since egg tempera does not allow for the same opportunity to build texture in the same way as, say, impasto painting in oils, producing these works has been a joyful experience for the artist and provide a wonderful opportunity to see her work in an entirely new context.

It was whilst a student at the Slade School of Art (1999-2004) that Smirnoff first decided to study egg tempera, an ancient method of painting that was used throughout the world until being superseded by oil paint in the fifteenth century. Travelling to a monastery on the outskirts of Moscow, Smirnoff was taught by Russian monks who had spent their lives mastering the technique of icon painting. Taking its name from the Latin tempero (‘to combine or blend thoroughly’), tempera refers to the technical process of mixing powdered pigment with the correct ratio of water and binder, such as egg yolk, until the desired consistency is achieved. Egg tempera, which dries quickly and cannot be blended once applied, has to be painted in thin layers on a smooth surface, typically gessoed wood panels. It is a laborious process from start to finish and one that requires patience and skill.

Understanding that icons exist not only as religious images, but as beautiful and sanctified objects treated with care through every stage of their construction, has had a lasting impact on Smirnoff. As the artist puts it, “I employ process to add meaning and validity to my subjects”. This begins with the materials she uses, from oak panels ordered from the same monastery she visited over twenty years ago to her more recent venture of salvaging off-cuts of veneer from a high-end furniture maker in New York. Each carrying their own history, the origins of these materials form the first of many layers of meaning within the artist’s work.

Compositions are compiled from a multitude of references, memories and images that the artist collects along the way. From a scene in a movie, a dress in a fashion magazine, a folk tale or piece of literature, inspiration comes to the artist in many forms. Art historical references abound, from Paolo Ucello’s charging horses and Lucas Cranach the Elder’s apple, to the techniques used to depict continuous narrative in Persian miniatures, Japanese screens and Chinese scroll paintings. Autobiographical references and personal memories filter in too, but the artist’s aim is never to make herself the subject or prescribe a certain narrative. Instead, Smirnoff enjoys that people’s own experiences of life will affect their interpretation of her work and that, in this sense, any meaning derived is co-created with the viewer.

Of all the elements involved in the creation of her work, however, it is colour that most excites Smirnoff and the exhibition title ‘Blue Sky Red’ pays homage to the two colours to which she has been repeatedly drawn throughout her practice. Frequently positioned as opposing colours in historical and cultural symbolism, from the political divisions of conservatism and communism to the associations of red with war and danger, and blue with stability and calm, they also have a shared identity within art history as colours that represent wealth, royalty and holiness. Intrigued by this relationship and the power they possess in communicating emotion, Smirnoff finds herself compelled to pair these colours within her work time and again.

Given the artist’s affinity for blue and red, it is perhaps no coincidence that it is Prussian Blue, a synthetic pigment first created by accident during the production of a red dye, that Smirnoff singles out as the most important pigment to her practice. Describing her love of the colour as something of an obsession, she is drawn to its incredible depth and ability to convey both sorrow or joy depending on the context. In a departure from the classical technique of building luminosity and colour from the white that the gesso provides, Smirnoff often begins by covering the surface with a layer of Prussian Blue, a neutral starting point that is malleable to the artist’s vision. As Smirnoff builds her compositions, applying the paint in thin layers, she is guided by the medium in unexpected ways. She describes how, as the paint dries horizontally, its surface becomes permeable and allows the detail of underlying layers to materialise by chance. In this sense, she has found a way to subvert the prescriptive characteristics of the medium and eschew its identity as a medium only suited for small-scale, highly detailed works.

Thinking of her paintings as ‘blue-sky visions’, unconstrained by any requirement to conform to traditional perspectives or realities, Smirnoff employs several techniques to ensure they retain an elusive quality. From flattened planes to the contrasting of looser, translucent forms with highly modelled sections, she distorts perspective and encourages an open-ended reading of her images. Working in this way, the artist hopes to regain something of the childhood imagination that is often lost through adult eyes, conditioned to apply logic and reasoning at the expense of wonder and magic. In Evening Annals, 2013, for example, a monumental, abstracted landscape is formed from large washes of colour and sweeping brushstrokes, overlaid with cloud-like bursts of texture and more densely applied layers of green. Cutting through the centre, a figure is cloaked in a startling blue, the folds of drapery guided by the underlying forms of the landscape that remain visible beneath. Anchored only by the fabric’s crisp outline and detailed modelling of the hand, the hooded figure’s identity and presence exists in a state of ambiguity that commands the viewer’s attention.

To Smirnoff, it is the fluidity of the human experience that intrigues her the most; life, in its fragility and delicacy, constantly oscillates between beauty and tragedy. By muddling fantasy with reality, distorting perspectives and colours, mixing cultural references and iconographies, she seeks to portray something of her own quest to understand the complexities of the world around her. She describes painting as an elusive search, forever driving her forward to create new works, challenging herself in scale and experimenting with the limits of the medium. Charting the artist’s journey to date, Blue Sky Red is a celebration of the artist’s love affair with painting and, when considering this body of work and what has sustained her motivation over the last two decades, Smirnoff’s response is resolute - “the subject always remains painting itself”.

Essay by Isabella Joughin.

Image: (detail) Veronica Smirnoff, 'Blue Bella', 2020. 

Tuesdays: by appointment only. 
Wednesday: 10am - 6pm
Thursday: 10am - 6pm
Friday: 10am - 6pm
Saturday: 10am - 6pm
Sunday: 10am - 4pm

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Candida Stevens Gallery

Candida Stevens Gallery

Candida Stevens Gallery is a curation led gallery established in 2013. The gallery produces exhibitions that explore important themes through the responses of new or relevant work by some of the finest emerging and established artists working in Britain today.