TOAST Magazine

In the Studio with the Artist Flora Yukhnovich

ARTS & CULTURE

Chloë Ashby visits the artist Flora Yukhnovich, ahead of her solo exhibition at Parafin Gallery, London.

“The thing that makes me want to paint is paint,” says Flora Yukhnovich, who, when we meet ahead of her first solo show at Parafin gallery, is dressed in clothes appropriately splattered from top to toe. For her, the way in which paint is applied to a canvas adds a whole new dimension to a work. “It’s a language with its own signs and symbols.”

Her south London studio is a white cube of sorts, except without the white. The floor is covered with further streaks of paint, as well as loose pages of source material and scribbled notes. Art books sit at oblique angles on a shelf that buckles beneath their weight, and a glass palette coated with crusty bubble-gum pinks, marine blues and lemon yellows evokes the period in art history to which her paintings are indebted. “As a child I always liked copying and I still do – that's why I make what I make,” she says. “Appropriation feels natural.”

Flora uses the Rococo, an 18th-century art movement associated with the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, to explore feminine aesthetics throughout art history. She finds connections between the decorative paintings of Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard and contemporary popular culture. “It feels like Disney, like Hallmark cards,” she says. “In many ways, it’s revved-up silliness – but I think there’s a seriousness there.” A seriousness to do with the female form and the male gaze. “These artists knew what they were doing.”

So, clearly, does Flora. Her paintings are at once entirely abstract and tantalisingly figurative – she may be borrowing from the Rococo but the end result is all her. Luminous colours and a stark contrast between light and dark create the impression of otherworldliness – and yet, emerging from the ether are true-to-life trees and sprigs of flowers. Smudgy impressions of half-submerged nudes lounge lazily or prop themselves up on an elbow, faces obscured and limbs dissolving into an overcast backdrop – these women are both in plain view and hidden, refusing to be seen. In some, sharply applied ribbons dance across the canvas, providing moments of pure clarity. In others, foaming waves thrash at the base and bare-bottomed putti prance through the air. “I always chuck in a cherub if I feel things are getting too serious,” says Flora.

Her paintings have an energy all of their own, with boldly applied textural brushmarks giving way to cloud-like patches of pastel-coloured calm. She prefers to work with oil paint because it stays wet for longer than acrylic, meaning she can add and remove layers over a period of eight or so days. It also makes sense because this was the chosen medium of the artists of the Rococo.

This fluidity mirrors that of her process. “I rarely know what I’m doing beforehand,” says Flora. Generally a painting will begin with a few pieces of source material that interest her, either because they have something in common or they evoke a certain feeling. Each work takes roughly fifteen days to make and during that time she’s constantly reading and researching, playing around with ideas. “Things begin to build up and by the end the piece can become something quite different.”

After studying at The Heatherley School of Fine Art for three years and working as a portrait painter, Flora wanted to further explore what it means to be an artist today. When she started her Masters at the City & Guilds of London Art School she threw everything out, except for painting. “For me it was always about flesh and paint,” she says. “I looked into why I wanted to paint and what painting means to me, then I began looking at it as a language with its own legacy.”

One thing she does do before she starts is produce studies – miniature works of art no wider than the width of an outstretched palm. Highly textural, composed of countless dabs of paint, these are as striking as the colossal pieces that cover an entire wall. “I like to work on large and small scales,” she says. “Somehow mid-scale doesn’t have the same range.” As is evident in her studio, working on the largest of the canvases can also be a challenge. “They’re so big that I have to move back and forth as I paint, focusing in on some sections and zooming out on others.”

And her current focus on the Rococo – how long will that last? “My practice is driven by curiosity so naturally it’s always evolving,” she says. Then again, she’s only been painting in this vein for a year and, for now, she’d like to take her time with it. “The more I look into the Rococo, the more there is to look at. It’s a very small period in art history but, for me, it ties into contemporary visual culture completely.”

Flora Yukhnovich will be exhibiting at Parafin from the 8th February to 30th March 2019.

Words by Chloë Ashby.  Photography by Michelle Marshall.

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