Earlier this week the Visual Arts department at West Dean College was pleased to welcome visiting artist Yelena Popova, who delivered a talk on her practice and conducted one-to-one tutorials with full-time students. Born in Russia and currently based in Nottingham, Yelena initially studied set design before undertaking an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art. Working across a variety of media, Yelena’s work incorporates painting, installation and video in order to engage with ideas of space and time, using the materiality of painting as a vehicle to explore broader concerns about cultural production and display.
As well as a fascination for contemporary design and the kinds of architectural features to be found everywhere in the built environment that characterises contemporary life, Yelena described how her practice has drawn upon influences of Minimalism and Russian Constructivism. When discussing her enduring fascination with curvilinear composition, she spoke about the impact on technology on the relative visual prominence of geometric forms – for example, the late appearance of the oval in much industrial design, after having ‘waited’ until computer software could reliably (re)create them.
Another theme of the work concerned the conventions of the museum and art gallery, especially their modes of display, extends to an interest in the materials and forms involved in the packing and distribution of artworks: the language of art handling, the sculptural presence of crates and cases, all tied in with ideas about how the ‘collector’ can be embodied not only in the material artefacts and images that make up their collections, but also the logistical paraphernalia that comes with them.
By approaching painting from a performative perspective, with paintings lifting away from their surfaces to inhabit an exhibition space, Yelena’s work raises further questions relating to authenticity in our exchanges with images, with printed reproductions of known artworks often having a presence in her everyday practice. Museum postcards form the basis of an ongoing series of drawings, often informing later large-scale installations. Yelena also talked about an on-line collection of digital reproductions of Hans Memling’s painting of St. Veronica, evidencing the endless contingencies and gaps already integrated into the contemporary distribution and reception of images. Yelena’s own series of paintings on linen, where these images are near-invisible or, as she put it, “evaporated”, questioning the very act of looking at paintings. This linked in with a more recent series of works based on the use of different substrates, such as copper, and the artist’s interest in setting up the “spectacle of material conversion”.
Yelena also showed a short film made as part of a recent residency at Upton House, a National Trust property that holds the painting collection of Lord Bearsted. The residency involved researching the “technical requirements and practical solutions related to the keeping of the collection during World War II [asking] how does a painting collection reflect the history, politics and economics of a period? What happens to a collection in times of conflict.” Yelena’s talk gave a great insight into her ideas and working methods, provoking an urgent discussion during the subsequent Q&A.
Yelena’s solo exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary opens on 16th July and runs until 25th September 2016.