Natalya Nesterova paints almost every day. She often paints common everyday scenes, like walks on the beach or people on a subway. For Americans, her most indelible work includes tourists and sightseers painted with eyes all over their bodies. But in her current New York exhibit, she mines the spiritual essence and ancient stories of Judaism and Christianity. Many of her paintings, regardless of their themes, reveal unexpected twists.

“My work is my relaxation. Because painting it is also therapy,” Nesterova said.

Nesterova, 68, is among the most internationally acclaimed Russian artists on the contemporary art scene. Some critics put her into a category of “primitivists” or “realists,” but often she is classified simply as “Natalya Nesterova” — for being such an original artist. Alexandre Gertsman Contemporary Art Gallery exhibits her work in Manhattan in an ongoing exhibition that opened on January 16, 2013.

The gallery, located in Lower Manhattan, exhibits both established and emerging artists of Russian descent. It attracts collectors, dealers and Russian art connoisseurs from the U.S. and abroad.

Nesterova graduated from the Surikov Art School in Moscow in 1969, but her passion for art started at home. Her grandfather was an artist, and she painted alongside him as a child. Nesterova’s parents were architects who taught her to understand and admire architecture and design.

She was well regarded in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and joined the prominent artists’ union. At the same time, she did not fall into the trap of creating government – approved or propagandist work. Nesterova’s first show in the United States was in 1988. Today she is an elite vagabond, with homes in Moscow, Paris and New York.

Card games and Nesterova’s artistic process

She has been painting for so long that she does not do preliminary sketches, she said. Instead, her ideas go right on the canvas. Nesterova spends a great deal of time looking at the painting to determine how to finish it. She often plays solitaire while deliberating on the painting’s fate.  Nesterova often works on a series of paintings united by one theme and there are topics that she always goes back to.

“I constantly come back to the gospel stories. Then maybe [I go back to] traveling to different cities, people playing cards, having dinner or just watching the ocean,” she said.

Herod the Great’s “Feast” by Natalya Nesterova. Source: Anna Andrianova

The current exhibition called “Natalya Nesterova: Christianity? Judaism?” covers both Christian and Jewish themes. For example, Herod the Great’s “Feast” shows the moment when the head of John the Baptist was brought to Herod on a plate while he was dining. The painting is full of interesting details — the scenery that you can see through the windows, different dishes on the table — but the centerpiece is the head served on a silver plate. The proximity of the head to the dishes and its mere presence at the feast creates a disparate atmosphere and the effect is chilling.

“Musical Notes” and “Antique Shop” are examples of Nesterova depicting scenes from everyday life in Jewish communities.

“The Jewish theme is either biblical or cultural, based on the everyday lives of Jewish people,” said gallery director Alexandre Gertsman. “A lot of her friends and colleagues are Jewish — so some of her works are a tribute to them rather than an expression of her faith.”

Gertsman works with Russian, European and American collectors. He has showcased the heavyweights of the Russian art scene, from Ilya Kabakov and the former duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, to Erik Bulatov. Many of these artists, including Nesterova, now sell in the six figures.

At this exhibition, prices for Nesterova’s work range from $20,000 to $100,000.

“The Russian art market—whether it’s paintings or decorative art — is predominantly backed up by Russian buyers and Russian collectors,” said Izabela Grocholski, who heads the Russian art department at Christie’s in New York. “But there is an important growth of non-Russian collectors as well.”

“We expect to see those prices grow more significantly as interest strengthens among Russian collectors as well as within the international market,” Grocholski added.

Natalya Nesterova said she believes that the success of an artist depends on more than  the quality of work. “It depends on fate as ell.”

Alexandre Gertsman Contemporary Art Gallery operates appointment only. Nesterova's exhibition will go through February 18th, then it will move to Annex Gallery and run additionally till April 20th.