Review: 'Resembling Russia' at the Ellis Gallery

Resembling Russia is open to the public from November 3rd-9th at the Ellis Gallery, on the third floor of the College of Fine Arts. Her work can also be found at www.esterpetukhova.com and @esterpetu on instagram.

Ester Petukhova's solo art exhibition, "Resembling Russia,'' is a brilliant and revelatory show, understated in its presentation yet stretched taut with ideas. In 10 or so short pieces, Petukhova crafts a slate of juxtapositions. The most obvious of these is the juxtaposition of Petukhova's Russian and American identities, but this becomes one of many when the time is taken to reflect on all the other tensions present in her work. There is a tension between sincerity and irony, a tension between the past and the present, a tension between childhood and adulthood, and lastly, a tension between sentimentality and cool detachment. While Ester is an astute mimetic, with brightly-saturated figurative works and a knack for portraiture, I am impressed by her ability to push her figurative works into broader contexts — hers could easily fit alongside work in the tradition of pop art or fit alongside artists working in text and meme-related images. However, the seriousness and rigor present across her pieces makes her distinct from her contemporaries.

Petukhova and her family left her birthplace of Vologda, Russia, when she was only one. This is an experience that any individual would find difficult to capture, so I am fascinated by how she continually reckons with this past without cliché or self-pity. The work that epitomizes Petukhova's ability to manipulate nostalgia is the standout painting "Vologda," a small square of fast-moving green. Painted with tense, small brushstrokes of great movement that differ from the flat, tight application of paint in her other works, it is a small square of pure past. A blur, a movement, and a gesture. Looking at it made me ache. I felt like a child looking out the window of a car while the world moves by at full tilt, far too rapidly.

Other standout works are her three portraits: "Portrait of Daniel Blokh: To Russia, Concerning Love," "Grocery shopping with my virtual roommates," and "Disappearing cabinets and students in the church cafeteria." These three portraits are a perfect microcosm of Pethukova’s artistic progression. Her talent for portraiture has always been obvious, but it is clear from these three works that her conceptual rigor continues to develop with momentum.

"Portrait of Daniel Blokh: To Russia, Concerning Love," painted while Petukhova was still in high school, displays her intense control of line and shape, bristling with small concentrated planes of color. Look at his hands; look at his eyes; look at the pattern in the couch.

"Disappearing cabinets and students in the church cafeteria," by contrast, appears at first glance to be simpler. White space abounds. The subject is defined, yet the world around her seems to be slowly popping away to emptiness. Look at the layering of the colors of the stacked glasses. Look again, at the hands. Look at the sly beginnings of a smile on the subject’s face.

The manipulation of nostalgia is at work again. I longed to see the details of the image that were left out. Was the subject with her friends? What, or whom, was she laughing at? We are left with bits, pieces, saturated colors, and an intense feeling of love and longing.

The conceptual richness of Petukhova's approach to portraiture is most concentrated in her piece "Grocery shopping with my virtual roommates." This work combines the filled-to-the-brim relationship of colors, shapes, and textures found in her Blokh portrait with the conflict of time and memory found in “Disappearing cabinets.” At first, the painting seems to be a cohesive image, yet again, I ask you to look closer. Each element of the painting is taken from different places and different times. Petukhova is a talented enough artist that if she wanted to make it appear like each subject was in the same place, she could have. The jarring, nearly imperceptible awkwardness of how each piece slots together was a choice. It is the collapse of space. In this work, and across all her works, Petukhova crafts a past that never occured from the pieces of the past she has.

Two more things I'd like to touch on before I close out my review — Petukhova's usage of irony and her depictions of food. "Irony" is perhaps too strong a word, but Petukhova certainly seems to be rolling her eyes at something. In describing the aforementioned piece, "Vologda," I declined to mention one of the most important details — in the upper left-hand corner is a logo, painted, almost resembling a sticker, of a piece of hay with Russian text superimposed. I could translate it here, but even without translation, this artistic choice worked wonderfully to curb the sentimentality of the greenery behind it.

Petukhova appropriates fonts and marketable images, in a way bridging the divide between the consumerist West and the nostalgic East. Using advertising slogans or referencing pop cultural icons like the Olsen twins may not be a radical choice in itself. However, when combined with the skill of her line and the seriousness of the underlying subject matter, these choices function at higher levels, pose a multitude of questions, and become less easy to define or even describe.

Petukhova's depictions of food also defy my descriptive abilities. I encourage you, again, to see them for yourself. What I find most fascinating about these culinary commentaries is how they push the techniques she developed in her portraiture to greater extremes. There's a conflict between the beauty of the colors, the elegance with which they are arranged, and the fact that the foods themselves may be slightly repulsive. Canned fish on bread, caviar on Lay's potato chips, an elaborate swirl of mayonnaise on a grimacing fish, all rendered in colors so bright you succumb to their charms.

It is very exciting to me that such a small concentration of works can contain such an intense level of conflict, juxtaposition, and technical ability. I am excited to see what she produces next and encourage all those reading my review to discover her work for themselves.