In April, Iliya Mirochnik was happy to find himself in one of his favorite places to be creative, where ideas arrive in an atmosphere of calm and quiet. The twenty-seven-year-old painter was in an economy-class seat of a jet heading to London from his home in Brooklyn to submit a large painting to the National Portrait Gallery’s 2015 BP Portrait Award competition. In the luggage compartment overhead, he had carefully rolled and secured in a canister A Mask of Bone and Iron Lines. The title refers to a line from a favorite Stephen Spender poem, “View from a Train.” Although this arresting canvas—which depicts his bearded friend, the architect-painter Bradley Wehrman, before an electric power plant—did not win, the trip proved fruitful for Mirochnik.
“There is this magic in being on an airplane, in transit. It’s the only time you can truly be on your own,” explains Mirochnik from his studio in an old Manhattan office building. “Ever since the days when I shuttled between New York and St. Petersburg, where I studied at the Repin [Academy of Fine Arts], it was on the plane rides back and forth that I could really reflect upon either of my existences. As soon as I arrived in either city, it was as if I hadn’t gone away at all.”
Still, it is on the ground that Mirochnik finds much of the material and inspiration for his art. He seems never to shut off that introspective quality that has resulted in, by his count, some three hundred completed canvases, as well as his ability to assess what he encounters outside of himself. “There is something of the poetic that I am striving to achieve in each painting,” he says, “and many of my influences come from my trips to places like Berlin and Potsdam and Romania.” Despite his young age, Mirochnik is already a much-sought-after teacher of painting, at venues as diverse as the Dacia Foundation’s annual summer residencies in both New York and Romania, the Bridgeview School of Fine Arts (his alma mater in Queens), the Florence (Italy) Academy of Art and the Southern Atelier in Sarasota, among others. Wherever Mirochnik is ensconced, the locale emerges in his paintings and drawings.
“Iliya is so dedicated to wherever he goes that he even learned Romanian when he first came to teach at our workshop there,” says Lee Vasu, co-owner of New York’s Dacia Gallery and founder of its residency programs. “He immediately absorbs everything around him. I saw how inspired he was by Romania—its village churches, monasteries, cemeteries, even a Transylvanian exhibition of 800-year-old glass icons that I couldn’t get him out of!” Though his works have appeared in numerous group shows, Mirochnik’s first solo exhibition will open at Dacia this autumn. “I like the fact that he tells stories in his works—subtle ones with powerful messages,” Vasu adds. Another gallerist who represents him, James Yarosh, whose namesake firm is in Holmdel, New Jersey, says: “Mirochnik’s gift is that his artist’s antenna is international. He shares stories in paint that go beyond their origins. That’s why I was fast to enlist him as a gallery artist so early on.”
Indeed, Mirochnik’s narrative paintings—almost all of which feature figures, male and female, old and young, clothed and naked (though always modestly so)—manage to tell a story, or more accurately, stories. Many of his large paintings, especially the dozen or so to appear in this fall’s Dacia show, reveal overlapping images. For instance, within the newly completed Fathers and Sons, a portrait of Mirochnik’s father sitting at a table in their Coney Island family home, appears another, smaller figurative portrait, as if it were an inset. That other image shows a young man asleep on a sofa. These images are independent of one another, yet also thoroughly engaged.
“It’s almost as if when you look at a painting that has some kind of narrative element, you’re expecting something to happen after it, and something to have come before it,” says Mirochnik. “I’m trying to get rid of that entirely. The narrative is caused not by the interaction of the individual characters in the painting, but rather, it’s an interaction of one image with another. Time isn’t an issue.” Vasu adds: “It’s very rare to see two paintings in one. It’s not always, at all, what Iliya paints, but that is how he has envisioned this whole series.”
In Mirochnik’s candid depiction of his paternal grandfather, War Is Simple like a Monument, time is, ironically, the most pervasive and invasive character. The painter admits to having only recently met the elderly grandfather, who has been living in Berlin—somewhat estranged from the family. The man is shown in a formal pose, on a chair, staring at the viewer. Surrounding him, though, are elements of architecture, actual segments of a concrete structure, one that clearly occupies an outdoor setting. The building fragments that Mirochnik has painted beyond the shoulders of his grandfather are those of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a reference to his own Jewish roots and the effects of World War II on his family. Of that 2005 monument by the architect Peter Eisenman, Mirochnik comments: “It’s huge and you can’t walk past it and it’s powerful, yet it almost isn’t what it is. You have people eating their lunches on the markers and kids playing hide-and-seek, which, I think, is actually part of the meaning or evolution of the monument.”
A Mask of Bone and Iron Lines is yet another conspicuous example of Mirochnik’s penchant for overlaying images and narratives. He has positioned his artist-friend Bradley Wehrman beside an open window through which a fragment of the Manhattan streetscape appears. That image, in turn, is surrounded, or framed, by a Byzantinely complex amalgam of power plant pipes and valves, thus offering two distinct narratives. “I was mainly aiming to capture— and primarily with visual associations more so even than Bradley himself— our regular discussions and conflicts stemming from living in constantly expanding, ominous cities.”
One of Mirochnik’s many appealing characteristics is the fact that he is not some dogmatic, brooding Eastern European-style artiste, immersed in a bleak Dostoyevskian plot. Rather, he is an engaging, bright-faced, curious young man, whose students adore him. (This became clear during an endless series of toasts from his Dacia residency pupils at their graduating exhibition last February. “It’s not easy being complimented so much,” he said afterward.) He admits to loving Italian opera (particularly the voice of the late Franco Corelli, “though I keep fluctuating between him and Giuseppe De Stefano, depending on whether I’m in the mood for dramatic or lyric roles”) and reading poetry, hoping that particular skill might work its way into him. “I think my relationship with poetry is that of people who are in love with a certain art and say of it, ‘I can’t do anything like that, but I wish I could.’”
As a boy growing up in Coney Island, where he still lives with his parents and maternal grandparents, Mirochnik was smitten with Batman and his adventures in Gotham. He and his family came from Odessa to America in 1993 (when he was five), so American culture has nurtured him almost all his life. “My love of the art of Batman, seeing him depicted and drawn in the comics, went away, though, almost as soon as I started taking art classes, when I was about twelve,” Mirochnik recalls. “The moment I was introduced to the incredible art of the past, I felt the comics couldn’t really compete. When I started taking art classes at Bridgeview, followed by admission to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and classes at the Art Students League, my parents told me I should do it correctly, or not at all. That meant I would have to take the classes, to do the studying. In the world they came from, you had to have the education, regardless of what you intended to be.”
That early interest in comics, followed by a taste for graphic novels, whose narratives are propelled as much by plot as by the visuals, led to Mirochnik’s ongoing fascination with frames and boundaries, and with the juxtaposition of more than one scene at a time on his canvases. He likens the very graphic architecture of the Internet to his newer work. “We log on and experience everything on the computer screen as a frame. But it’s not about one image being on top of another,” he says, “rather, it’s a bunch of images all connecting.” When asked to name some of his artistic inspirations, Mirochnik immediately cites Pierre Bonnard. Indeed, looking at Mirochnik’s canvases, we see big, colorful geometric blocks with significant narrative moments happening along the borders, as in Bonnard’s works. In Portrait of the Artist Artyom Nosov, which took first place in the 2013 Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition, all attention seems to focus on the figure, apparently a painter in repose, cigarette in hand, thinners and supplies beside him. But looming over his shoulder and flirting with the edge of the canvas is a portrait in progress on an easel, a ghostly, even spooky, rendering of a man in a tall top hat. What appears to be our main focus suddenly cedes to that of the suggested figure. “There’s always an impressionistic vibe that everyone gets from my paintings,” Mirochnik says. “I’m not sure I’m always so happy with that, but on the other hand, I can almost agree with it at times.”
In Fathers and Sons, Mirochnik’s depiction of his father at home with another figure asleep on a sofa, is, of course, a domestic scene, a setting explored obsessively by Bonnard. “This is essentially a portrait of my father, but the canvas also includes a self-portrait assuming a pose that is unnatural to me, but one in which my father often falls asleep,” Mirochnik says. “It’s a painting about connections I have, and it’s also about the relationship I have with my father, which has changed as I get older.” For a painter who insists he needs to plan ahead, to create a visual outline of what will appear in finished form, Mirochnik concedes that some of what ultimately gets painted is the result of subconscious activity. “I’m not the kind of impulsive painter who gets started and finds that something else happens along the way. That does happen eventually, though, but only because I have planned ahead. And if I try to explain what this painting means,” he says of the father/self-portrait, “all I can say is that there are times when the image comes before the understanding of the image.”
Mirochnik adds: “Bonnard is always about the home, so my admiration for him isn’t just about his technique, but his actual subject matter. The home is so important to me because it can speak to everyone. There is a lot more to take from the small things always around you, the things at and in a home. They are so often overlooked.”
Even before Mirochnik graduated with a master’s degree from the Repin in 2013, he was teaching classes there. Like many artists of his generation, he was posting new works directly on Facebook, specifically the sketches and finished works he was doing for his thesis project, the subject of which was a traditional Jewish wedding. It was those posts that attracted James Yarosh: “I contacted Iliya after having seen his work progressing at the Repin and having known, too, that he had previously studied at Bridgeview. I began discussing showing his art as soon as he returned to the United States, having seen the level he had already attained. I was anxious to see what he wanted to create after graduation.”
Founded in the eighteenth century, the Repin is steeped in tradition, yet somehow its rigorous program in classical figuration makes for, perhaps, a freer artistic atmosphere. “At its best, the kind of training you get at the Repin and elsewhere in Russia is a lot more open-ended than here,” says Mirochnik. “The instructors taught us to ignore the superfluous and to focus on the core of what the picture is really about. This opens you up to experimenting in other media.” Mirochnik is careful to exclude New York’s Art Students League from his wholesale assessment of the American way of teaching art. In many college-level programs here, he says: “Everyone is an artist; you can do anything, and anything you do is valid. At the League, however, they are still focused on certain aspects of technique.”
Mirochnik is a highly disciplined worker: when he is not teaching, he is painting, sometimes late into the night, the strains of his favorite performer, Jacques Brel, echoing in his high-ceilinged studio or, more discreetly, through his earbuds. “I love Brel’s music so much that if I simply put him on, I’m immediately put in the mood to paint—it’s an almost Pavlovian response. And I’ve recently discovered another great French singer, Barbara. She’s unbelievable!”
Mirochnik has a particularly keen understanding of his dual roles as painter and teacher: “While attending the academy in St. Petersburg, which was rather strict, I could only paint what I call ‘my own paintings’ at home. And even that was hard because there was some inherent conflict between what I was supposed to be practicing at home versus what I wanted to do on my own. I couldn’t pull it all together.” But, like any artist who suddenly finds clarity in a work-in-progress, Mirochnik appears to have experienced a kind of epiphany about himself: “This is the first time I am in control of what I want to have happen in my paintings. These here,” he says, pointing to some newly completed works, “most accurately convey the way I perceive what is around me. I’m at a juncture. It’s the beginning of my life as an artist.”