Lesia Khomenko: Full Scale
New YorkFridman Gallery
Lesia Khomenko: Full Scale
March 15 – April 29
For her first-ever U.S. solo show, Full Scale at Fridman Gallery, Ukrainian artist Lesia Khomenko considers the unique experience of witnessing and documenting a war from afar. Like the rest of Ukraine, Khomenko’s life was upended when Russia invaded in February of 2022. As she fled the country, she left behind her physical world, as well as the less tangible aspects of daily life. Particularly crucial for Khomenko was the lack of information on the situation inside Ukraine and the loss of easy contact with her loved ones, including her husband, Max, who is fighting in the war. The world outside of the country is dependent upon international news, social media, and sporadic video calls to provide insight and see the people and devastating impact. The blurred and pixelated images in the media protect the identities of soldiers and censor deceased and disfigured bodies, but they also reduce them to nameless figures. Individual people become statistics.
There are also soldiers who take the risk and post selfies that they blur themselves, a marker of self-determination. Khomenko takes these unidentifiable soldiers as the source material for her life-size portraits. By focusing on these images rather than photographs shared in the news, Khomenko highlights the disconnect between the soldiers’ reality in Ukraine and the information disseminated to the outside world. She also raises questions of what visual representation of war will prevail and what exactly this means for the people who are fighting.
This tension between the lived experience of war and the way in which the outside world sees it is at the heart of the show. Khomenko examines this concept through emotional and psychological paintings in washed-out colors and muted tones. Greeting the viewer to the gallery are two works from her “Unidentified Figures” (2022-23) series, installed perpendicular to the wall. They are the least abstract works in the show and depict the soldiers’ bodies in full; their faces remain blurred. As with most of the paintings on view, both feature solitary men, though a ghostly outline of another soldier drapes his arm around the subject of Unidentified Figure 2 (2022). Far from the devastating documentary photographs that proliferate the news, this image is one of comradery, yet the loss alluded to is clear. The portrait—posed for the camera—illustrates how different the representations of war are depending on the narrator.
The viewer must navigate a path between these two works to enter the space of the gallery, a powerful curatorial decision that emphasizes their physical presence and human scale. Once past these portraits, our sense of the human body begins to unravel as the paintings become increasingly more abstract. The soldiers start to appear robotic, as if their helmets, guns, and protective gear have slowly evolved into an extension of their bodies.
A series of sculptures displayed throughout the gallery removes the bodies completely. Consisting of rolled, painted canvases inserted vertically into sports equipment like sneakers and boxing gloves, the sculptures resemble the prosthetic limbs that soldiers often end up needing after they serve. Hidden inside each rolled canvas are paintings with by far the least representational portraits. The symbolic legs have taken place of the bodies entirely.
Aesthetically, as the works become more abstract and the bodies disappear, the compositions start to appear flatter. This is most apparent in the monumental Moment of Silence (2023). At twelve12 feet widelong and nearly seven feet tall, the work is the largest in the show. From a technical standpoint the lack of depth is unexpected given Khomenko’s demonstration of her skill. She is familiar with working on a large scale; previous works were thirteen13 feet tall. However, the more time spent with this seeming anomaly, the more intentional this flatness becomes. Whereas previous works featured her husband, Khomenko has never seen the subjects of these new paintings in person. This is crucial to consider. Khomenko, and all displaced Ukrainians, rely on the flat screens of their phones and computers to see into the war and connect with their loved ones. She can only paint the imagery from these digital sources. Like the pixelation, the flatness is part of the figures and further contributes to their loss of identity.
Despite this loss and the devastating human toll alluded to in the show, there remains a sense of hope. In several works, the figures give the camera (and in turn the viewer of Khomenko’s portraits) the thumbs up. Even in Unidentified Figure 2—the work in which the soldier stands next to a ghostly outline of a colleague—the visible person poses with his thumb cheerily raised. In Unidentified Figure 6 (2023), the only body part with identifiable features is the hand showing a thumb pointing up. Also representative of hope are the shoes and sports equipment supporting the rolled tubes in Khomenko’s sculptures. These objects are pristine and represent activities associated with leisure, entertainment, and fitness, symbols of a healthful future. Though thin, the limbs these items support are propped up with a sense of determination. Far from broken, they appear resilient.
Even the act of taking a photograph and documenting the war from the soldiers’ own perspectives is a form of hope. While photography has become weaponized and used to gather intelligence, Ukrainians have taken back the medium, blurring their own likenesses for the chance to be their own narrators and contribute to the greater understanding of war. While the bodies of the soldiers may become abstract, their humanity remains and the photographs, along with Khomenko’s paintings, exist to tell their stories.