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Ester Petukhova’s cheerfully tragic key

Ester Petukhova, Burgeoning Blue Screen, 2022, acrylic on shaped panel, 28 x 29 x 1/2 in. (71.1 x 73.7 x 1.3 cm.)

Contributed by David Carrier / Born in Russia at the very start of this century, Ester Petukhova is a Pittsburgh resident. Her precocious new show includes seven small acrylic paintings, two of them with two parts, on shaped panels. Burgeoning Blue Screen shows a Russian at work on an old-fashioned computer. Indexed Landmarks 1 & 2 depicts a man, naked to the waist, holding a large fish. And Bread with Salt in the Wound presents a large loaf of bread, and is enhanced with glass beads. “It is a customary Slavic tradition,” the gallery label says, “to present bread with salt when welcoming a foreign nation or power.” Welcome, then, to the former Soviet Union. 

Ester Petukhova, Indexed Landmarks 1 & 2, 2022, acrylic on shaped panel, 25 x 15 3/4 x 1/2 in. (63.5 x 40 x 1.3 cm.)
Ester Petukhova, Bread with Salt in the Wound, 2023, acrylic and glass beads on shaped panel, 26 x 20 in. (66 x 50.8 cm.)

I would classify Petukhova as a post-Soviet neo-Pop painter – post-Soviet because her art responds to the demise of Russian socialism, neo-Pop because her everyday content tracks that of American Pop Art. In Pizza Power Play (1998), for example, a comic-book figure zaps a television playing Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut commercial. Alla Alignment portrays Alla Pugacheva, a famous Soviet-era pop star, who has moved to Israel to protest Russia’s war in Ukraine. Whereas the specific subjects of American Pop Art – Peter Saul’s California politics or Roy Lichtenstein’s comics – are immediately meaningful to an American eye, many of Petukhova’s are not. But her wily deployment of familiar stylistic tropes clues viewers that what they are looking at has something to do with pop culture somewhere else.  

Ester Petukhova, Pizza Power Play (1998), 2023, acrylic on shaped panel, 38 3/4 x 26 1/4 in. (98.4 x 66.7 cm.)
Ester Petukhova, Alla Alignment, 2022, acrylic on shaped panel, 25 1/2 x 25 1/2 x 1/2 in. (64.8 x 64.8 x 1.3 cm.)

For me, seeing “If and When You Find Me” was like watching a Russian film without subtitles. I think that’s the point. Petukhova is trying to suss out how art can show post-Soviet Russia. Historical thinking requires reference to the ways in which the past leads to the present and prepares us for the future. In the Soviet Union, the past was dreadful and the present often difficult, but the future was claimed bright. Few here or there expected the collapse of Soviet communism. Petukhova’s most important statement about that eventuality is the medium-size, two-part painting Through the Fortochka: An Exit West. A fortochka is a small window, common in Russia, that hinges independently of the larger window frame. On that pale blue panel, a woman is looking out of an open window. Through the frame on the wall to the left, a wooded landscape with a hut appears as an image of the idyllic past. Taken together, the two images suggest that post-Soviet Russia is stymied between a heritage lost and a future, for the moment anyway, foreclosed.

Ester Petukhova, Through the Fortochka: An Exit West, 2023, acrylic on shaped panel and acrylic on inkjet print mounted on panel, in two parts, window (open): 40 1/2 x 32 1/2 x 11 in. (102.9 x 82.5 x 27.9 cm.) & landscape: 9 x 13 3/8 in. (22.9 x 34 cm.)

The great art historian T.J. Clark asks “what would it be like for Left politics not to look forward?” His very tentative answer is that “politics in a tragic key … will operate always with a sense of the horror and danger built into human affairs.” That reflects the worldview that emerges from Petukhova’s ironically cheerful-looking paintings. Her creation of this body of deeply questioning work – as mysterious and disquieting as Russia’s present state – is a remarkable achievement for a very young painter.

Ester Petukhova, Through the Fortochka: An Exit West, 2023, acrylic on shaped panel and acrylic on inkjet print mounted on panel, in two parts, window (open): 40 1/2 x 32 1/2 x 11 in. (102.9 x 82.5 x 27.9 cm.) & landscape: 9 x 13 3/8 in. (22.9 x 34 cm.)

“Ester Petukhova: If and When You Find Me,” Here Gallery, 527 N. Taylor Avenue, Pittsburgh PA. Through August 12, 2023.

About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand, and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, artcritical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for The Brooklyn Rail and is a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.

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