By EMMA RIVA August, 2023
Ester Petukhova’s star is on the rise, so it’s fitting that the first piece you see upon walking into Here Gallery in Pittsburgh, PA is starshaped. Petukhova (b. 2000, Vologda, Russia with roots in Portland, OR) is a 2023 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s BFA program whose work has always grappled with questions of post-Soviet identity, but her debut exhibition at Here goes a layer deeper. Petukhova calls herself “a painter and researcher translating a digitally afflicted language around Russian and post-Soviet bodies.” While her show at Here is not her first solo exhibition—she’s exhibited at Tchotchke Gallery in New York, NY, Blackfish Gallery in Portland, OR, and Miller Institute of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh, PA—it’s the most succinct and cohesive version of her work. It ties Petukhova’s personal self and artistic inclinations to a larger historical context. The eight works in the show, curated by educator and writer Sean Beauford, are a combination of Petukhova’s undergraduate portfolio at Carnegie Mellon University and woodcut panels created specifically for it.
All are shaped woodcut panels, none of which are traditional rectangular canvases. Instead, they take the form of stars, bodies, and even two tiny Russian milk biscuits. The pieces seem to float in the wall space, in line with Petukhova’s inquiry into the gaps in images and narratives of Russian and post-Soviet people. In each piece and in the accompanying index book, Petukhova draws from Soviet popular culture: the cartoons, food, and architectural fixtures that make up a complex and thorny national identity that Petukhova sorts through abstraction and nostalgia to attempt to find.
For the exhibition, titled If And When You Find Me, Here gallerist Lexi Bishop initially connected with Petukhova while giving a guest lecture at Carnegie Mellon and was immediately drawn to her, despite her young age. (“I usually shy away from artists that are undergrads. It feels like cradle-robbing,” Bishop confessed to me). But both Beauford and Bishop spoke to Petukhova’s conviction and professional demeanor. Bishop later approached Beauford about curating a solo exhibition at here, and found that he had a driven, intelligent recent Carnegie Mellon graduate in mind: None other than Ester Petukhova. As one of the few commercial galleries in Pittsburgh, Here is one of the city’s only ties to the wider art market, and while Bishop has exhibited a number of emerging artists, Petukhova is the youngest she’s shown.
In its title, Petukhova’s exhibition confronts a universal existentialism, the search for ourselves in the other, but also lays bare the way that we look for specific identities in contemporary art. When we look at images, we search for signifiers and context around not just what the work displays but who the artist is. Just think of the uproar over Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the Whitney Bienniale, a white woman’s portrait of Emmett Till. Whatever one thinks of that particular moment, it sparked a conversation about where you find the painter within the painting. In If And When You Find Me, it might be tempting to look at Through the Fortochka: Exit West (2023) and say “There you are! I found you!” You see Petukhova’s depiction of her own face, her pale blue eyes gazing towards the far end of here gallery through the woodcut fortochka window that makes up the focal point of the piece. “This was the first self-portrait I’d done in over two years,” Petukhova said. “But in the title, I wanted to point to there being no assurance that you will find an image of me or be able to place a timeline or culture or world. To search but not with the assurance that you’ll find something in the show.”
On a technical level, Petukhova’s sense of texture and color is dazzling. The sheen on Soviet celebrity Alla Pugacheva’s lips and the softness of her blue eyeshadow in the starshaped Alla Alignment. The speckle of salt atop a loaf of bread in Bread with Salt in the Wound (2023), achieved by a gentle dusting of glass beads. “Any moment I can expand the painting, I do,” Petukhova said with the characteristic conviction Beauford and Bishop noticed. “I try to have fun with the fact that painting doesn’t need to look painterly at all. I want people to guess whether something has been pasted on or painted on. I’m asking myself ‘What kind of visual experiences can I produce?’” Much contemporary art and art criticism centers on the how the art relates to the artist’s experience. One could easily call Petukhova’s work representative of some larger post-Soviet experience, but that would cheapen it. On the phone, Petukhova is much less interested in waxing poetic about what it all means than about how the plethora of images around us influence what we think of as Russian—in the printed index companion to the show, Petukhova references t.A.T.u and TikTok, little tidbits of online ephemera that make up what Americans see of Russia. The “index” accompanying the show, a print edition of Petukhova’s influences and some essays by her and her contemporaries, showcases this.
The online Russia is a sort of absurdism in itself, Adidas tracksuits, men holding fish, girls dancing in the snow with grizzly bears, or a YouTube video in the index entitled Normal Day in Russia #2, showing an elderly man in a balaclava holding a shotgun in an empty parking lot. “I don’t think we’ve even begun to crack the nut of what images can do. You can take a screenshot over and over again of something now. How do we make images with integrity?” Petukhova said. In nearly all of Petukhova’s faces, one side is in shadow, but in none of the works is there a light source to cast the shadow. The shadow changes the hollows do their eyes and the curves of their cheekbones. This “shadow” on the faces of post-Soviet subjects speaks to how Soviet identity is both the source of shadow and the shadow itself. One of the eyes on Burgeoning Blue Screen (2022) is a darker brown than the other, as if part of the figure’s face has a mist over it from the fridge he’s put his PC in.
Beauford added: “Thinking about memes online, they’re just shared with no context - if you know, you know. We both talked about not dictating viewers’ experience, giving them a space to being what they bring to it.” One of the most fascinating visual experiences in If And When You Find Me is that of looking through the fortochka, a small ventilation window on the side of a larger windowframe. Upon squinting through the dark green frame, I found myself looking into the eyes of the figure on Indexed Landmarks 1 & 2 (2022). The “landmark” is a young man holding a fish, his face and the face of the fish both obscured by a green rectangle, a vodka bottle in the fish’s mouth. “Indexed Landmarks 1 & 2 is very stereotypical of a Russian guy, but it also could be someone’s uncle in Mississippi, just instead of vodka he’s drinking something else,” Beauford said. “I think there’s a way that people feel like they can’t understand a thing if they don’t relate to it. So many of us have been forced to see ourselves in things we’re not actually in.” But another way If And When You Find Me shakes things up is by Beauford, an American, curating Petukhova’s post-Soviet narrative. He listened to Alla Pugacheva, watched Russian films, and even attempted to learn Russian himself. David Carrier of Brooklyn Rail called Petukhova’s work “like watching a Russian film without subtitles.” It’s an unabashed, precocious mishmash of the familiar and unfamiliar.
With If And When You Find Me, Here finds its groove of something thought-provoking and relevant that speaks for itself. Bishop has shown a wide variety of interesting work, including sweeping narratives like Jamie Earnest’s Good Mourning or impressive displays of technical skill like Amanda Martinez’s Labor, but Petukhova’s work is not only interesting, technically impressive, or ambitious. It’s both cohesive and sparks a larger conversation. There’s a connection between the post-industrial and the post-Soviet. In Pittsburgh, people often give directions based on what’s no longer there, and the city is well-known for strange ephemera such as the Star Wars Episode III: A Phantom Menace vending machine that sits on the side of a local road, or the “titty sphynx” statue in Allegheny Cemetery. Like Russia, Pittsburgh has a huge meme culture attached to it, and one of the things Petukhova plays with is how regional/national identities become these nebulous little online subcultures. In these micro-connections with images of food and drink and small, familiar phrases, we are all looking for something, but most of us don’t know what for. Maybe it isn’t meant to be found. But we search anyways. Petukhova’s finding is not an “if” but an “if and when”—a provocation to stop thinking in hypotheticals and search deeper with the assurance that nothing is assured. WM
Ester Petukhova’s If And When You Find Me closed 8/12, and Here Gallery (927 N Taylor Ave) will be closed until early September. Petukhova currently works in New York, NY.
Emma Riva is an art writer, author, and curator based in Pittsburgh, PA. She serves as the managing editor of UP, an international online and print magazine covering street art, graffiti, fine arts, and their intersections in popular culture. She is also a masthead staff writer at Belt Magazine and a contributor to Bunker Review, Widewalls, Carnegie Magazine, and Rust Belt Girl. She published her first novel, Night Shift in Tamaqua, in 2021. More about her can be found on her website and Instagram.view all articles from this author