Yulia Iosilzon - Catalogue Essay
Originally published in the catalogue accompanying Yulia Iosilzon’s solo presentation with De Brock Gallery at Art Antwerp (Antwerp Expo, Antwerp, 16th-19th December 2021)
16th December 2021

Picture a toadstool, a wild mushroom of the inedible kind, and I would wager that you’re imagining a fungus of the genus Amanita Muscaria. The binomial name of the common fly agaric or fly amanita species of mushroom, they are perhaps the most recognisable and culturally iconic toadstools found on the forest floor. With their frilled white gills protected by seductive, shapely, rubescent caps, freckled and flecked with white polka dots, the ease with which they can be identified and caricatured has seen them frequent fairy tales for centuries, often inhabited by gnomes, pixies or sprites. These famous fungi can be observed amongst the tormented townsfolk of Hieronymus Bosch’s renowned triptych tribute to temptation, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490-1500), appear dewy and anthropomorphised to perform The Nutcracker Suite’s Chinese Dance in Disney’s operatic fable Fantasia (1940) and litter Mushroom Kingdom to provide pivotal power-ups for the eponymous moustachioed plumber in many Super Mario video games (1985-present).

Now, these white speckled, scarlet capped fungi find themselves at the centre of Russian-born, London-based artist Yulia Iosilzon’s latest suite of paintings. A decuplet of mushroom depictions presented in a loose non-sequential narrative structure, an interchangeable storyboard of flora and fauna, populated by busy bees, leggy grasses, bowed branches and coiled fronds alongside a multitude of mushrooms, primarily agaric or amanita as well as other select species. In regards to the aforementioned historical and literary status awarded to humble toadstool, Iosilzon’s fungal portrayals align perhaps most poignantly with those magical mushrooms chronicled in Lewis Carroll’s illogical epic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). A particularly popular chapter sees the titular pre-teen protagonist encounter a contentious and quizzical caterpillar sitting atop an oversized ‘shroom, before experiencing severe shrinking and enlarging after ingesting chunks of the toadstool. These side effects suffered by Alice are suggestive of naturalist Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s scientific study into the observed distortion of size perception experienced by subjects under the influence of the fungus’ powerful psychoactive effects.

In Iosilzon’s hands, however, the mushrooms themselves are oversized, their curvaceous caps and bulbous, stocky stems reminiscent of artist Erwin Wurms rotund ‘fat’ sculptural critiques of consumer culture. Rendered in those familiar warm yet warning reds, as well as autumnal oranges and alluring crimson, here a calligraphic approach to shape and line not only imbues the Falstaffian fungi with a charming charisma and an appealing anthropomorphism but also serves to signify the artist’s hand within the painted pastures. Showing sympathy to the significant lineage of famed colour-field painters, in the creation of these lively landscapes  Iosilzon employs a soak staining technique similar to that popularised by Helen Frankenthaler in the 1950s and 60s. Setting her stretched silk canvases on the studio floor, the young artist embodies Narcissus perilously peering into the pool, pouring thinned oil paint directly onto the surface, allowing for spills, smears and stains to form. Once dry these watery washes become the backdrop for her scenes of wilderness wildlife and mystical meadows, occasional dyed drips the only evidence of their early horizontal existence.

Iosilzon welcomes each fortuitous flare, embracing accidental artistry and incorporating improvisation into her painting practice, one grounded by prolific sketching but spurred on by spontaneity. Inspired and influenced by the work of artists such as the preeminent abstract painter Charline von Heyl and the pioneering interdisciplinary icon Yayoi Kusama, Iosilzon acknowledges how the former unites impenetrable painterly patterns with furtive figurative elements by utilising a generous diversity of texture whilst maintaining an economy of brushstrokes and allowing areas of exposed canvas to remain, indicating pregnant pauses or charged silences. The latter, meanwhile, demonstrates the ability to elicit variation from seeming repetition, an achievement Iosilzon attempts to emulate as she pursues recurrent fungal representations. As her pastoral vistas hum with hues of pastel pink, soft yellow and baby blue, the addition of patches of ticker oil paint allows for topographical texture to build upon the silken surfaces, Iosilzon’s experimentation with expressionism preserving the presence of particularly prominent brushstrokes, each painting retaining a physical memory of their production.

Above the earthy undergrowth of muddy browns, lush greens and deep oranges, bees buzz back and forth between select paintings, their wings wafting leisurely, their compound eyes cartoonish and fly-like. Cherubic strawberries ripe for the picking hang from sagging stalks, as elsewhere those frayed mushroom gills form wide toothy smiles, akin to the faceless, levitating grin of Carol’s proverbial Cheshire cat. Fleeting faces peer out from between meandering reeds or behind bulging mushroom caps, their features floating as incorporeal apparitions or ethereal evocations. Occasionally, these figures emerge as avian-human hybrids, winged and feathered; they embody themes of therianthropy often associated with mythological or religious storytelling. In one instance, even a mischievous, metamorphic mushroom-man appears from a hedgerow, complete with toadstool headdress. 

Iosilzon, an alumnus of a musical academy following her mother’s unrealized dream of becoming an opera singer, arranges the elements of her paintings like an orchestra pit. Those plump agaric toadstools act as booming low-pitched double-basses or cellos, small clusters of yellow or black-capped fungi chiming in as violins, limp long-stemmed mushrooms fill out the woodwind section serving as flutes, clarinets or piccolos. The remaining supporting cast of flora and fauna complete the brass family, while percussion is provided by the backdrop of swaying grasses, leafy branches and swirling fern fronds. Throughout, Iosilzon acts as the confident and consummate conductor, positioning each ensemble element to ensure harmonious balance and rhythmic repetition, and setting a steady tempo amongst the suite of melodic meadows.