Critics’ Picks

Sasha Rudensky, Karaoke Europa, 2013, archival pigment print, 20 x 29''.

Sasha Rudensky, Karaoke Europa, 2013, archival pigment print, 20 x 29''.

New York

Sasha Rudensky

Sasha Wolf Gallery
70 Orchard Street
June 8–July 16, 2016

Were these photographs staged? Not really. So they were naturally captured? Well, not quite. The trouble, you see, is that Sasha Rudensky’s subjects themselves can’t tell illusion from reality. Children of post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia, they grew up with nothing to believe in, inhabiting an ideological void. Now, in a rush to cultivate identity and transcendence, they aridly ape American-style capitalism—its money, spectacle, sex, and clothes. In a profound sense, they are always playacting. The photographer sometimes orchestrates the setting, but she needn’t ask them to pose.

Indeed, Rudensky—who was born in Moscow, moved to the US as a child, and has spent a decade photographically exploring the Soviet Union’s complex legacy—seems to view contemporary Ukraine and Russia as one giant stage. Her subjects, people she encountered while recently traveling through the countries, are often shot against backdrops of desire (boutiques, nightclubs, malls, massage parlors) and usually alone. The result is a series of existential crises. Though well off and surrounded by comforting possessions, they appear melancholy, uneasy, forlorn. In Karaoke Europa, 2013, for example, a well-dressed man stands on stage in a snazzy but eerily empty karaoke club. It’s a chilling metaphor for his life: There’s no audience, but he still performs.

Amid all this bleakness, however, there is also palpable visual sensuality. Rudensky has always favored strong color and here bathes her subjects in various shades of blue. It’s a felicitous decision. Blue, as Goethe noted in Theory of Colors (1810), “may be said to disturb rather than enliven.” Rudensky’s photographs certainly disturb. What’s uncertain is whether her subjects can be enlivened.