Contextializing Hyperrealism – Yuliya Pogreb

“A painting is never finished, only left alone.” – Yulia Pogreb

The oversized portraits and still-life paintings of Yuliya Pogreb are masterful representations of light and color, awash in detail. Painstakingly working on each artwork for hours on end, she re-defines hyperrealism by giving them a social context. “Time is not something I focus on, a painting will take as long as it wants to take. It’s never finished, only left alone,” explains the artist.

yuliya pogreb
Yuliya working in her studio.

In order to achieve the photographic accuracy in her paintings, Yuliya begins her work from a picture using a grid to transfer it onto the canvas. “It’s a building blocks game for a 40-year-old,” she says. Although, Yuliya’s work is hyper-realistic and based on photos, she doesn’t consider her paintings photorealistic. She does not want to portray personalities, she wants to create windows into the souls of her subjects with her work.

What are your first memories of interacting with art?

I was never much of a talker. That’s how I’ve started painting.

I was raised surrounded by complex art forms, from seven years of piano training to endless classical/jazz music concerts to visiting the best art galleries in Soviet Union.

Classical music takes one melody and wraps, deforms, inverts, rephrases, and re-tempos it, all in one take. I learned to pay great attention to detail during my music years. Some of the art masterpieces were both inspiring and discouraging. The distance between what I knew I could paint as a child and what I was ultimately trying to accomplish was too great. I remember my frustrations when, as a child, I couldn’t get a drawing of my grandfather’s face right and ended up rubbing the paper with my eraser so hard and so many times that I ended up making a hole in it. The fear of not succeeding was too overwhelming and I stopped trying.

You mentioned you are a self-taught artist. Could you elaborate a bit?

I graduated from Avni Institute Of Art and Design as a Graphic Designer. I worked for 13 years as a graphic artist in New York designing jewelry catalogs. That is as close as I’ve got to pursuing any form of art professionally.

I started painting 4 years ago, at the age of 35.

As with any great trick, you don’t want to find out how it was done. The driving force of trying to catch the impossible by its’ tail and a constant fear of never being able to achieve whatever you strive for moves you forward forcefully. I examine the ‘how’ (to paint) through my own experiences hopes of achieving something of a rarity. Not knowing how, is one advantage the absence of professional training that I like to embrace.

Do you end up rediscovering the “How” every time? What changes do you see from one canvas to the next, in terms of technique?

yuliya pogreb
Bedhuin, Dry Oil on Canvas, 24 x 18

I do re-discover the “How” from canvas to canvas. But as far as the technique is concerned, I follow what the photograph dictates. There are not many changes that occur, except for a sudden jump from realistic painting to abstract (referring to a disintegration of a face into little squares and building it back together).

How do you choose your subjects?

I would describe my taste in people as unconventional. It’s rooted in my childhood and I can’t fully rationalize it myself.

All I know is that I typically pick humble people from forgotten communities as the subjects of my portraits. It’s an obvious character study but the trick is to let the soul come through the characters’ absence of emotion. There is no hiding behind it, no pretence, no smiling to the camera/viewer. What I’m trying to portray is their souls and spirits – taking it and ‘sculpting’ it from there. I almost feel like I shouldn’t be revealing the reasons for my picks, it is up to the viewers to determine. But if I was forced to summarize it, I’d say that ‘beauty’ and ‘silence’ are the overall themes – for both my portraits and still life objects.

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You work on really large canvases. Is there a reason for that?

When I paint, I revisit a memory of being 4 or 5 years old, in awe, sitting in an echoing blotchy studio in a small Eastern European suburban movie theatre and watching for hours how gigantic posters for films are being painted. What fascinated me then was the magnitude of the artwork the artist was able to create using only his hand, the precision with which he was able to transfer the image onto the white fabric using colorful oils.

There is something quite powerful – psychologically – about a painting that interacts with you. By increasing the scale of an object or a face I decrease the size of a viewer – and you are 5 years old… again.

yuliya pogreb
Self, Oil on Canvas, 30″ x 48″

Could you tell us a little bit about your ‘square’ technique, how did it come about and what significance does it hold for you?

The idea of using a technique of breaking up an image into a multitude of squares came about because of the modesty and compromise which I felt while painting my first self-portrait. I was looking for a particular kind of photograph to work with and my own portrait was the only one in my possession which had all the necessary qualities. For a very private person, the concept of painting myself was too peculiar to contemplate. I had to find a way to almost conceal myself from my own self while I painted.

I started thinking of cross-stitching, building-blocks, mosaics and even Tetris. The idea seemed insane, especially since it would take over 9,600 squares to complete the painting! Nonetheless, I fell in love with this technique. It came most naturally to me. I now have a similar approach to life; one day at a time, one square at a time. 

When I paint, I’m no longer painting a face. I’m painting a square. At close range the viewer can behold an abstraction of a face while from some distance, a more precise image of a face emerges. Thus, viewers are able to see the complexity and the wholeness at the same time.

Do you have a favorite among your works? Which one and why?

My favourite is “Chosen” for obvious reasons. It is my husband’s portrait as a child.

yuliya pogreb
Chosen, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 36

Any artists that inspire you?

I’m not inspired by other painters. To me they serve as means by which I determine what’s possible.

But I am being inspired by musicians and actors. Most of my still lifes were painted alongside with Johannes Brahms and Antonio Vivaldi. Others with geniuses of the 90s. That is sort of pretzel-like collaborative experience.


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