Katya Zvereva: Femme Fleur is the artist’s first solo show at The Untitled Space, a gallery with quite a few high-caliber female artists on its roster. Like her predecessors, Zvereva explores the female body and grapples with issues of gender and bodily autonomy, though she also ventures into the cerebral to consider the way we perceive reality. What differentiates this promising artist is her perspective; Zvereva is a Russian artist living in New York City, and her work investigates the tiniest nuances of American culture and behavior. She is also remarkably versatile when it comes to material, expressing these observations in her paintings, sculptures, drawings, and woodcuts.
The latter are notable in this exhibition, imbued with the emotional power of a German Expressionist woodblock print—perhaps the most famous example of the material’s popularity. But they are decidedly less abstract, drawing their power not from dynamic stylizations of human features, the way Kirchner and Rotluff achieved their masterpieces, but from truthfulness.
“One of my main goals is to create art that people can understand,” Zvereva says. “It’s important to share.” She is influenced both by her friends’ stories and the internal reality she recognizes within herself. When I ask what separates her reality from the reality everyone else experiences, she explains that everyone constructs their own visual truth, hence the difficulty of forging connections that resonate as universally true. But Zvereva accomplishes this in Shirley through a single eye, lidding it heavily and imbuing its pupil with a penetrating stare. It is a stare that everyone can feel regardless of the nature of their personal reality. Pain, longing, hope and peace comingle, and race down her cheeks in stripes of red paint like crimson rain.
Zvereva’s woodcuts require a different approach than her paintings. “When I paint,” she says, “I build the image from the surface up, whereas with woodcuts I am getting rid of parts of the surface. It’s interesting to work with reduction rather than addition.” Perhaps that is also why Shirley is so emotionally powerful—the artist has stripped the figure of all anecdotal accoutrement, revealing human feeling in its purest form.
In her paintings, Zvereva utilizes ‘addition’ carefully, selecting motifs purposefully and rendering them in such a manner that the viewer questions the dissonance between form and content. In the painting What If, the figure’s almost amphibious feet and boneless hands are quite unnerving. The artist explains this choice as a representation of embarrassment, the sensation we feel as we attempt to behave normally but are keenly aware that something about ourselves is slightly off-kilter. Zvereva also says that the sensation of uncertainty resides within the work, the kind of confusion that renders everything around a person oddly unreal. Fragments begin to fall apart, performing the irrationality that begins to consume one’s mind. First, two left feet…what will transform next?
I find the dissonance of What If quite uncanny, and the double meanings hidden within it even more so. But Zvereva accepts the multiplicity of ideas and thoughts that reside in her work. “Any story can be seen on this or any other canvas,” she explains. “I want my paintings to be a dialogue between artists and a viewer, so there could be millions of narratives behind it.”
Another painting in the show that particularly affected me was Half Russian Half Magician. The male figure’s hands loom large, gripping the female’s thighs and lower back with massive fingers. Despite this, she doesn’t seem trapped by him. He recedes into the blue-striped background while she transcends the painting’s illusion of perspective, threatening to float right off the canvas. Zvereva explains that the male figure’s grasp is not forceful but protective.
She describes the female as “a light fresh wind…light and vanishing.” It seems she is constantly threatening to slip out of his grasp—not due to any malicious intent, but the fear of her leaving remains in his mind. Perhaps Half Russian Half Magician is actually about the male figure’s quest to find himself and his role in their relationship. She is already at peace; the tension remains in his tight fingers.
Establishing cohesion in a partnership is difficult, especially as gender roles loosen and freedom opens up for women, leaving men to question the behavior they were socialized to accept. Zvereva renders both figures with empathy. I admire the truthfulness she affords each character, resisting politically-charged cliches in favor of human emotion, even if that emotion is at times selfish or flawed.
With Time, Zvereva has once again centered a work around a female perched on a man’s lap, but the relationship between the two is even more nuanced. The artist considers the female figure to be the queen– the goddess of this painted universe– but notes that she is not yet entirely independent. She depends upon the male figure for strength, even though she is the true lifeblood of the painting. The dynamic echoes what the artist sees in American society. “It is still a man’s world,” she says. “It was created by people who protect what they have and are unlikely to share. Women have more respect but they must earn it.”
Time feels like the Guernica of the exhibition due to its grand scale and the sheer number of interwoven figures—not to mention the intensity of the subject matter, rendered in red and black with jagged lines and markings. What Zvereva isolates here is an uncomfortable truth, and she handles its dissonance delicately and with a lightness of heart. The female figure is neither imprisoned nor free. Instead, she is caught in a game she cannot win.
This notion of play and trickery adds a degree of humor to a somber subject. Disney characters abound, recalling the myth of ‘happily ever after’ that we feed our children. Yet they disguise the violence all around us, and Zvereva depicts it seeping out from behind them in gashes of red and pools of black behind their eyes. The female figure touches the tips of her thumb and pointer finger, forming a circle, a gesture indicating ‘The Circle Game,’ also known as ‘Trick,’ which has long been played by schoolkids. The detail suggests that this goddess is game to play the game—ready to exist in this world that binds her and struggle to stretch its limits.
As a Russian woman living in the United States, Zvereva has been pondering this struggle she witnesses. The artist talks about the notion of the strong, independent woman that we strive for here in America. It differs drastically from the emphasis placed on collective living that Zvereva is accustomed to. “[In Russia] women share what they have and work together,” she says. “I think that was very important after the Second World War, with the vanishing of the men that came with it…There was no competition, it was collective survival, and it is still like that today.”
It is true that we value female independence highly in Western culture, and that it often does come at the expense of female friendship. There is also a prevalent vicious rhetoric about female competition—often for men—that pits women against one another.
Zvereva recognizes the strength in collectivity, particularly among women, so I find it interesting that so many of her works are portraits, or feature heterosexual couples. Several of her recent drawings feature a number of faces peering out at the viewer from behind a swath of leaves. She swears All They was sparked by feelings of joy during a sunny vacation in Los Angeles, but I almost can’t believe her. A single eye here, an ominous face there—I cannot escape the feeling of being watched. The figures do resemble a collective; perhaps an ancient tribe of tree-dwellers. It makes me wonder how deeply our values are engrained in our subconscious. Zvereva comes from a community that values collectivity– perhaps joy for her evokes memories of collectiveness?
In her tremendous solo debut at The Untitled Space, Zvereva has entranced me with her uncanny portraits and soul-piercing woodcuts. But she has also left me wanting more, particularly regarding the notion of collective living and what that means for individuals performing their own identities. I look forward to following the artist’s work and seeing how that kernel of an idea may sprout later in her career.
Katya Zvereva: Femme Fleur is on at The Untitled Space in TriBeCa through May 24. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday 12-6pm. And be sure to follow Zvereva and Untitled Space on Instagram to stay up-to-date!
Until next time,