Natalya Nesterova: A Painter of People

Sea, 1996
oil on canvas, 36" x 40"

Lehman College Art Gallery is pleased to present Natalya Nesterova: Russian Wanderings as part of its ongoing series featuring international artists. Nesterova is one of the preeminent contemporary artists of Russia and this survey provides an important overview of her work from 1980 to 2000. Nesterova is first and foremost a painter of people. Her impastoed canvases convey a sense of time and place. They are marked by a pervasive mood which is immediately felt. This exhibition also provides an interesting window onto the life of an artist who joined the Artists’ Union in 1969 and had worked throughout her career during the Soviet period as a "state-sponsored" artist.
From the beginning, Nesterova’s work drew from modernism rather than the "official style" and is in many ways not what one would expect. Her work developed with an awareness of art movements outside the country, and as a member of the Artists’ Union, she traveled widely throughout the country. By the early 80s, she was exhibiting and traveling outside the Soviet Union. While particular artists—Magritte, Rousseau, and Nolde—are among the influences critics have mentioned in relation to Nesterova’s work, surrealism is most often referenced. It is this aspect of her work which can appear to Western eyes as a metaphor for life during the Soviet era. This type of imagery, however, is also found in the West where it is attributed to the Post-Modern condition. In Nesterova’s work perhaps it is both.
Nesterova depicts people in social situations. The isolation of the individual in crowded cafes, streets, or beaches, and the fragmentation of the figure, read as a comment on their psychological state. Figures are often concealed, presented with their backs to the viewer. Disembodied hands reach into the picture plane to eat a meal, feed the birds, or have a manicure. Faces are obscured by a raised forearm or hidden by a bowl of fruit. Other figures are literally wearing masks, which make them seem like actors in a performance rather than people in control of their lives. There is a stillness in all this activity and a sameness about these people. More recent work depict figures blanketed with eyes—always the subject of observation. Like the act of "people watching," one projects narratives onto Nesterova’s paintings which are surely as much about the observer as the observed.

Bird That Flew Away, 1995
oil on canvas, 35 1/2" x 39"

Also outside the bounds of what one would expect from an state sanctioned artist are the religious themes, Christian and Jewish, that Nesterova has explored over the last ten years. These include Biblical subjects as well as contemporary practitioners. Her themes from the Bible are also those familiar from the history of art. The imagery is sometimes extremely subtle like a cookie in the shape of a Star of David. These works are richly layered and such subtlety makes one go back and reexamine the work for other hidden symbols.
We would like to thank the curator, Alexandre Gertsman, for organizing this exhibition. His selection of paintings provides an impressive overview of Nesterova’s work. Gertsman and the INTART Foundation have provided an invaluable service in terms of bringing artists from the former Soviet Union – both emigre and those living in Russia – to the attention of the American public.
Susan Hoeltzel