Interview: Varvara Ilchenko
Luca Curci talks with Varvara Ilchenko during CONTEMPORARY VENICE 2021 – THE SECRET GARDEN, at Misericordia Archives.
Varvara Ilchenko is a Ukrainian-born multi-disciplinary artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She immigrated with her family to Northern California (where she grew up) when she was 6 years old through a Jewish refugee organization. Born to artistic parents, who run a successful art rescue and restoration business, she has been drawing and creating since she can remember. She studied Theater Arts at San Francisco State University, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2010. Aside from a handful of public school art classes and even fewer private art lessons, she is predominantly self-taught and self-practiced. She credits her continued interest and passion for art in all forms to her parents for actively exposing her to the art world through countless museum trips. She is a graduate of both The Neighborhood Playhouse Summer Intensive in New York City, and the Stanislavski Summer Art program in Cambridge, MA. Her theater career moved her to New York city in 2013 where she’s worked as an Actor and Director since. Her visual art focuses on two distinct mediums: Acrylic painting and fine-line geometric work using ink pens and stencils. Though she will create with anything she can get her hands on.
Luca Curci – How did you get to your current artistic practice?
Varvara Ilchenko – My current practice was a slow evolution over many many years. I had a difficult time making friends when I was growing up and I spent a lot of time alone. I was still learning English, was really shy, and generally grew up in a chaotic environment. Art was an escape from all the barriers that came with being a new immigrant in the United States. It’s just something I have always done. I went through a phase designing outrageous costumes on paper, then building miniature paper homes. Eventually, I got into virtually every kind of visual art: pencil, charcoal, watercolour, collage… before finally really landing on painting and pen drawing. I also studied Theater and I love film and have drawn a great deal of inspiration from performance art. I began painting more seriously in college and even more so after I graduated. I moved home for a little while some time in 2011 and that time period was a pretty crucial precursor to what I feel like is now my style or aesthetic.
LC – What are your thoughts while you paint? Do you have any habits or rituals while you work?
VI – It really depends on what I’m working on. I have a ritual in setting up my workstation which really takes at least 30 minutes and helps me “drop in” and feels totally present. I will either have a movie or TV show playing in the background (somewhere out of sight) or music. I try not to force it, but I really love falling into a flow-state where time totally disappears. When I paint, I focus on colour and balance. I work with pretty saturated colours and while I know the style isn’t for ‘everyone”, it’s important to me that colour placement makes sense. My pen drawings are puzzles. I don’t always know where I’m going so for me it’s a never-ending practice in problem solving and navigation. I sometimes like to sing while I paint. I find it cathartic and deeply therapeutic, but I make sure no one is around when I do this.
LC – Which art themes do you pursue? What is your preferred subject, if there is any?
VI – Without getting too dark, I’ll admit that much of my art comes from pain and memory. There’s been a lot of self-portraiture. It’s all auto-biographical and a way to process difficult moments and feelings, and to turn them into something beautiful. In recent years, I’ve really tried to steer the lens towards external subjects. I’ve been painting family members, close friends, and drawing monsters. I’m interested in evolution and aim to always reach a little beyond my depth and expertise. It needs to feel hard before it feels easy and without challenging myself, I feel zero motivation. I’ve been practising drawing more hands, but I still can’t get the pinky right. I also love patterns and embroidery and complexity. I’m a maximalist by nature. I want people to experience my work by leaning in closely to see just how much is there and then having to step back to take it all in.
LC – How do you choose your subjects? Is it a reasoned or an instinctive process?
VI – I honestly feel like my subjects choose me. I’m a vivid dreamer. Sometimes an idea will literally wake me up at night, or I’ll get a flash of some sort of image while I’m running. But inspiration doesn’t always come easily so when I’m feeling especially dry, I just throw some paint on a canvas. It’s usually not great at first, but I’ve learned that it’s always easier to edit when you have something to edit. And honestly, sometimes it’s just bad. There needs to be room for failure. But, once I see where I’m going, then the process becomes both reasoned and intuitive, “How do I get from point A to point B?”
LC – How do you feel when you see your work completed?
VI – Relieved. And perpetually frustrated. While I’m practising letting go, I always look at “finished” works and see what I could have done differently. But sometimes it’s just better to let sleeping dogs lie. And there’s pride too. It’s like feeling a muscle getting stronger and more confident that your next work will evolve upward.
LC – Do you agree with our vision of art and what do you think about the theme of the festival?
VI – Absolutely. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my personal experience with creating art is all about finding that small place between our existence in the world and something greater and outside of ourselves. I know there’s a place where the human experience, consciousness, and perception meet in this small corner of the universe and I’ve read too many physics books to know that as humans, we may never know exactly what that is. But I’ll never stop looking for the source of why I do the work I do.
LC – Can you explain something about the artworks you have in our exhibition?
VI – “Igor en Montparnasse” is a portrait of my Dad. I met my parents in Paris 3 years ago. We’d never travelled like this together and I pushed really hard for us to do something like this. The trip was difficult. My Dad and I are incredibly stubborn people. we butt heads a lot. But there was a moment when we were coming back to Paris from Chartes and I was reading this incredibly sad book. I spent the whole train ride sobbing uncontrollably while both my parents fell asleep sitting in front of me. Something about their ease made me stop crying and I took a photo of them side by side. I painted their portraits the following spring for their 35th anniversary. The gift was the goal, but what I really wanted was to remember my Dad this way. An unpeaceful man in a peaceful moment. That, and I also love the hell out of him. “Lazarus” is a painting of an Ex. I’m not a religious person by any means but I love the parable of Lazarus. Bringing Lazarus back to life was the last miracle Jesus performed before his crucifixion and death. He says, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believed in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”. Our relationship was difficult and I spent an incredible amount of my time and energy trying to resurrect it, so much so, that in the end, I’d like I’d gone through a little death. His expression in the painting seems on guard, looking away, while part of him is coming in and out of existence. I wanted to honour my experience by creating something that would ultimately outlive my pain and in a way, create space for my own resurrection.
LC – Did you enjoy cooperating with us?
VI – Yes. This is my first international exhibition. I have no idea what I’m doing and your whole team has been beyond helpful in guiding me through all of this.
LC – What is your idea about ITSLIQUID GROUP?
VI – I think you highlight very interesting and diverse work. There’s a lot of content to examine. But so far, I’ve been impressed with the themes you work with that go beyond things like “landscapes” or “animals”. I think ITSLIQUID offers opportunities for artists you don’t necessarily have access to in the US, especially if you are an emerging artist. You also provide spaces for artists to not only show their work but also want to travel there themselves, which is exactly what I’m doing in a few weeks!