Pittsburgh-based artist Ester Petukhova grapples with Russian identity in time of conflict

click to enlarge Pittsburgh-based artist Ester Petukhova grapples with Russian identity in time of conflict
Photo: Pablo Anton
Ester Petukhova

The stereotypes surrounding post-Soviet countries are rife with often unflattering images of people indulging in once-forbidden Western capitalism. Other depictions dwell on the instability many face in these countries — the reality show 90 Day Fiance and its many spin-offs, for example, latch onto the idea of Russian and Eastern European citizens marrying their way to a more secure life in the United States. The 2016 documentary The Road Movie compiles dashcam footage painting Russian life as a colorfully chaotic melange of exploding tractor trailers, fist fights, and wayward bears.

Artist Ester Petukhova, whose latest show If and When You Find Me, now on view at here gallery in the North Side, explores representations of post-Soviet identity in a more thoughtful and personal way.

“I think that, within the Western world, we have a very limited understanding of who a post-Soviet person is,” says Petukhova, a recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate who was born in a small town on the outskirts of Vologda, Russia, located just north of Moscow.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh-based artist Ester Petukhova grapples with Russian identity in time of conflict
Photo: Courtesy of here gallery
“Indexed Landmarks 1&2,” part of If and When You Find Me at here gallery

The show, curated by Sean Beauford, includes six new paintings and a 100-page artist’s book, through which Petukhova asks “what it means to be Russian today, especially given the current political climate with Ukraine.” If and When You Find Me comes after Russia’s alleged interference in U.S. elections, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of and continuing war with Ukraine.

In Pittsburgh, a city built, to a major extent, on the labor and culture of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, many of whom came looking for jobs in the steel industry, the conflict especially resonates.

The war only confirms what Petukhova’s parents and others sought to avoid. In 2001, Petukhova says she came to the U.S. with her parents, who settled in Portland, Ore., an area to which many Russian and Ukrainian-speaking families were settling at the time. She adds that her parents chose to emigrate at the “height of the political shifts” in her home country, not long after Putin had been installed in 1999.

“And I think a lot of people in that moment realized, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t the place we need to stay. It doesn’t seem like things are going to go in a positive direction,’” she says.

Petukhova explores how post-Soviet people are defined within the digital space, adding that she encountered thousands of videos and memes labeled as depicting Russian life. She incorporated one image from Facebook showing a young, shirtless fisherman holding a carp with a bottle of vodka shoved in its mouth. “Burgeoning Blue Screen,” one of the six new works on display, came from a meme of a young Russian man proudly showing off his desktop computer set up in, of all places, a refrigerator.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh-based artist Ester Petukhova grapples with Russian identity in time of conflict
Photo: Courtesy of here gallery
“Burgeoning Blue Screen,” part of If and When You Find Me at here gallery

“And someone took a picture of that,” Petukhova says with a laugh. “And it's such a strange image, and it makes me wonder, what is the logic behind organizing this DIY cooling system, and does it even have any effective function? But there's something about the texture and the sort-of arrangement that happens in that photograph that I was like, I need to paint this, it’s just so crazy.”

In the decades since the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War thawed, those curious about life during and after the Iron Curtain can now access archival images, footage, and other material presenting a certain view of the USSR. Petukhova points to a 1998 commercial featuring Mikhail Gorbachev eating at a Pizza Hut in Moscow’s Red Square. The video went viral across social media after the 2022 death of the former Soviet Union leader.

Petukhova explains that, while content like the Pizza Hut commercial presents Gorbachev and Russia in a strategic way, the same cannot be said of the online content she encountered, as the internet provides more freedom and anonymity to post anything on any platform. While that may seem more democratic, especially compared to Russia’s notorious history of censorship, it also presents some interesting quadaries.

“I was like, who is collecting this? Who is uploading this? Where is it being generated from?” says Petukhova. “Do the people who get reposted even know about this? And I started to see it all around, all the different forums and online spaces that identify something that has a certain texture or, maybe, image quality as somehow conducive of a Russian state or a post-Soviet state, where something reminds us of that landscape. And so, that became very interesting to me, to collect materially, and try to understand where this kind of logic is being built.”

In working on the various paintings, Petukhova says that, as someone with Russian and Ukrainian Jewish roots, she wanted to understand the idea of “hyphenated identity,” and the “internal conflict” that comes with that. She also grapples with identifying as both Russian and American, two world powers Petukhova says are, in some ways, “foils for one another.”

Going forward, Petukhova says she wants to examine how post-Soviet populations have and will evolve in Pittsburgh.

“I am so interested in learning more about Pittsburgh’s history and post-Soviet diaspora itself,” she says, adding that the city boasts over 30,000 different Ukrainian migrants. “And so, I'm really looking forward to seeing how that cultural shape will start to change and what that will mean for generations to come. I think that there's definitely going to be some kind of influence that we'll get to see over the years.”


If and When You Find Me. Continues through Aug. 12. here gallery. 527 N. Taylor Ave., North Side. Free. gallery-here.com