Flora Yukhnovich talks to Katy Hessel

In this conversation with Katy Hessel, the artist reflects on her time in Venice and the city's influence on her most recent paintings, which are on view exclusively online and in our new virtual gallery on Vortic. Vortic Collect is available to download from the App Store.


What does paint mean to you?

I love paint. I think it’s delicious. I find it the most thrilling, exciting stuff. I like the idea of it being excessive and luxuriating in it. And I hope that comes through in my work.


You often talk about paint and food. How do they relate in your mind?

I like the idea of food in relation to paint. I think there's something alluring about that, and also maybe a little bit repugnant at the same time. It shares some of the same connotations of excess with the Rococo.


Do you paint with an idea of excess in mind?

I do want my work to have a sense of fullness, kind of like a mouthful or something. I think about eating cake when making paintings! Most of my ideas come from consumerism, and that's massively tied up with ideas of the feminine and women.


When did you first start using oil paint and how has this evolved?

I started using oil paint when I trained as a portrait painter, and I love how malleable it is – it spreads really beautifully. What I’m trying to do nowadays is to morph in and out of figuration. There isn't a more perfect material because oil paint stays in flux for such a long time.


How do you use light in your work?

I think of light as being a really good way of binding a painting together. If I'm wanting to bring in lots of different elements, it unifies them. I prime with white and then I add a wash of yellow over the top of it. Then I wipe that back in places where I want it to be really bright – so the light shines in and bounces off the white. I started using yellow over the really bright primer after looking at Turner's work, which has the most incredible sense of light, kind of glowing from behind. I just really loved the idea that as they're getting older, the paint on the top is fading or thinning while the white is showing through more and more, so they're getting brighter and brighter as time goes by.


‘The light was amazing, I think because so much of it is made up of reflection…’


Tell us about your experience of Venice. Why were you drawn to the city?

I think Venice is such an interesting place especially in the eighteenth century when it was at the peak of playfulness. I had looked at Italian Rococo paintings, and I hadn't quite understood where they fitted in with the French. So it was really good to look at the work and try and understand what the Italian Rococo was, because it still is quite religious compared to the French work, which I think is characterised by a move away from religious subject matter. 


How was the experience of seeing Italian Rococo paintings first-hand?

It was amazing. Because I’d mostly seen them in reproductions, it was great to go back every day. Each time you’d see something different. Different things were revealed in the colours, or you’d get a totally different feel for the work depending on where you were standing. A lot of them were site specific, so you entered the painting, as it were, with the direction of the light in mind. 


Did your understanding of Italian Rococo art change?

I think it was just so valuable to be able to look at the works over and over again. Especially the Tiepolos. At first I think I was sort of shoehorning his work into what I knew about French Rococo and I was trying to make sense of it like that. And then I went and saw the amazing oval ceiling in Santa Maria de la Visitazione, which is where Vivaldi taught and composed. Just knowing that and thinking about the music while I was in there, it all sort of made sense to me suddenly, and I began to understand his work. It's like choreography. 


What made experiencing the Tiepolo ceiling so revelatory?

Walking under that ceiling is phenomenal. You move from the little islands, each with their own episodes. Maybe there’s a trumpet that makes you move on to the next section. And then there's an angel and you kind of have this moment of suspension. The different pacing of the different sections is so musical. I think I began to think more about the dynamics of looking at a painting. And that was really important to the work I made.


Tell us about the studio in Venice. Did it have an impact on the work you made?

The studio is right on the south side of the island where it's really quiet and it looks across the Giudecca. So all I could hear from it was the lapping of water. The light was amazing, I think because so much of it is made up of reflection, sort of amplified, so it changes very fast. It was just really very romantic to stop working, look out the window and see the boats whizzing past. 


Image: Flora Yukhnovich at work in Victoria Miro's Venice studio during her 2019 residency

Photography: © Andree Martis




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