The Russian-born, New York-based artist Ilya Zomb wants viewers to look at his “paintings as you would travel to some exotic country and stare in amazement at the strange new world.” His October show at Caldwell Snyder Gallery explored the outer reaches of realism, where loving observation of everyday things blends seamlessly with elements of fantasy. Paintings such as Day’s Subtle Movement (2009) are elegant enigmas, like those early Renaissance pictures imbued with occult iconographies that hold us spellbound, even when we cannot fully decode them. In Day’s Subtle Movement, a young woman—naked but demure in her white cap—stands behind a small table laden with walnuts, snails and a tiny frog. She holds two walnuts in neatly calibrated fingers, framing an eye with one hand, as if she were a metaphysical naturalist taking esoteric measurements. This half-figure is presented dead center in the horizontal landscape composition, between symmetrical dark trees. A river with a tiny sailboat in the background is a reminiscence of the Flemish masters. Zomb has done landscapes in the past, turning Central Park into a playground for nymph-like ballerinas and exotic animals—elephants, rhinos and giraffes. There is a touch of Henri Rousseau in some of those images, but Zomb’s recent work seems to have a cooler, more formal beauty. Still, he does not try for the smooth skin of paint favored by many surrealists. His surfaces have an intriguing texture, achieved by using a small palette knife.
Zomb combines still-life elements with the figure in spatially intriguing ways. In some work from the mid-1990s, there were choreographed encounters between dancers and outsized pears, oranges and pomegranates, scenes with the magical scale incongruities of Victorian fairy painting or a more benign Hieronymous Bosch. In his new painting Motif of Autumn Parade (2009), the scale is realistic. The figure is a dancer in practice clothes, moving on hands and knees across the geometrically squared floor, attended by a group of snails, which she watches attentively. These little creatures, with their elegant spiral shells, are a recurring motif for Zomb, perhaps as emblems of patient craftsmanship. A frieze of pumpkins, gourds and a bird is arrayed across the foreground. The simplified interior space has the perspective-box theatricality of a Piero della Francesca painting. In Obtainment of Serenity (2009), two resting dancers occupy a similar space, along with another group of snails, an armadillo and a bird on the wing. The floor has an elaborate geometric pattern, and the dancers wear alternating red-and-black leotards and tights. The composition is schematic yet mysterious. These scenes are far removed from Degas’s off-kilter, voyeuristic glimpses of ballerinas on the edge of movement. A comparison to Balthus seems apt, but Zomb’s work fits more comfortably still in the context of contemporary new iconographers such as Lani Irwin and Cristina Vergano (both previously profiled in American Arts Quarterly).
Zomb’s straightforward still lifes have an old master quality, as in Slow Moving Still Life (2009), where his textural paint-handling and manipulation of shadows gives solidity to the row of tough-skinned, ruby-seeded pomegranates. But the flotilla of snails exploring every surface complicates the way we perceive the illusion of space. The most playful of the works on display may be Evolution of Steadfast Concentration (2009), in which two dogs confront a trio of pigeons on top of what looks like a model of a De Chirico arcade. The eye-contact stare-down between the two groups suggests an Aesop’s fable for which we have mislaid the moral. The avian and canine actors are, of course, accompanied by a group of snails. One of the dogs from Evolution of Steadfast Concentration, an appealing King Charles spaniel, serves as a companion to the seated ballerina figure in Idle Musing (2007–09, cover). The geometric interest here lies in rounded forms: the dancer’s stiff yellow tutu, the blue-draped table and clear vases of flowers on the table and the floor. The little chorus of snails makes another appearance. Zomb remarks: “The world constantly creates still lifes around us. And yet everything is always in motion.” The almost imperceptible movements of snails are perfectly consonant with Zomb’s enchanted realm, becalmed yet quietly humming with imaginative vitality. Caldwell Snyder Gallery, 1328 Main Street, St. Helena, California 94574. Telephone (415) 392-2299. On the web at www.caldwellsnyder.com