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State of the Art: Yulia Iosilzon

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State of the Art: Yulia Iosilzon
Painter and ceramicist Yulia Iosilzon talks to Reader's Digest about artistic inspirations, the snail as a metaphor for migration and her solo show at Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery
Reader's Digest: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be an artist?
Yulia Iosilzon: My parents encouraged me to be creative growing up. I always loved anything that would bring you out of the real world and into some sort of dreaming world. I didn’t go to kindergarten so I spent a lot of time watching Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, and I think that world of beautiful colours, dreams and magic was something I gravitated towards.
"I always loved anything that would bring you into some sort of dreaming world"
At school I did art at GCSE and A Levels, and my tutor told me that I had a talent. She was a really fierce lady, just straight to the point, and she was the sort of catalyst for me to really pursue art properly. It wasn’t an easy choice to pursue it, but doing art was something that I could really dig into. I could really flourish and spend ages doing something meticulously without counting the hours.
My teachers definitely had a big impact on me. The sculpture tutor David Fusco at Camberwell, where I did my foundation diploma, made me apply to [Slade School of Fine Art]. I didn’t want to do that, I was anxious about it and not confident at all. But he pushed me to apply and then I went to Slade. 
RD: Can you talk us through your artistic process?
YI: It’s different for each show; I treat each show as a new body of work. I usually start with a space for the show and think about what questions I could ask myself within that space, and how I can make it into something interesting and engaging.
Yulia Iosilzon. Photo by Paulina Mytych
Snails are a recurring element in my exhibition at Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery, and that works well with architecture of the space. On the ground floor you see images that explore the snail character, and then downstairs we have created what I call a snail colosseum. Basically it’s a cylindrical, shell-looking space. Upstairs you see the snail images and downstairs you see what’s happening inside the shell.
With this show I wanted to explore origins, intimacy and comfort, and the different associations we have with that. I used silk a lot because it’s a sleek material so you can paint on it, and I liked the femininity and theatricality of it.
RD: It sounds like you really transformed the space at Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery. How much agency did you have over the staging of your solo exhibition?
YI: It’s always been a dialogue between me and the gallery. I’ve worked with [gallery directors India Bhattacharjee and Lovisa Berntson] before, so we talked about the ideas that I wanted to explore, about how I wanted an element of theatricality to the show. We worked on ideas together, and we have a wonderful technician who helped with orchestrating how the show would look. 
"It’s always been a dialogue between me and the gallery"
So it started as my idea and then grew into a mutual concept that we all loved. I think it’s important for artists and galleries to do things mutually. It’s good to vocalise your ideas and your vision, but also give alternatives. Then everyone is in a win-win situation. 
RD: Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
YI: One of my favourite artworks actually is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. This organic spiral form has always been on my mind, it appears a lot throughout my practice. Another reference point for me is Richard Serra’s work. I take a lot of inspiration from sculptors. 
I also like [American painter] Helen Frankenthaler. I’m drawn to repetition, so maybe that’s why there are so many snails in the show. I love repeating elements over and over again until they reach the point that they become something else.
RD: In your solo exhibition at the Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery, Modus Operandi, there are a lot of recurring motifs in your work that seem to weave together a narrative. Do you think that an artwork should tell a story?
YI: I don’t start with a narrative approach, rather I usually use symbols and materials that then speak for themselves. I was really curious about exploring spiral forms, so that led to this snail shell element in my work. 
Installation view of Yulia Iosilzon's Modus Operandi exhibition
Installation view of Yulia Iosilzon's Modus Operandi exhibition
The snail symbol then took on meaning within the themes I wanted to explore in my exhibition of origins, intimacy and comfort. You know, a snail holds its home in its shell, so it just brings its home anywhere that it goes. This also translates the idea of migration
My family has been moving a lot for the past few centuries. My mother is Russian and my dad is Jewish, and the family has lived throughout Japan, Russia, Israel, Berlin, the UK. When people ask me, where’s home? I don’t really know. I’ve never had my grandparents and my parents in the same place. Even though I have this massive family, it’s always moving and shuffling. The snail works as a symbol for that sort of migration mindset. When you move a lot, you start thinking of yourself and your family as your home, rather than a specific place. 
Yulia Iosilzon’s ambitious solo exhibition Modus Operandi is showing at Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery from March 28–May 11
Cover image by Jacob Lillis
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