REAL LIFE ROMANCE
There is a power in Natalka Husar's BLACK SEA BLUE that is developed thematically from canvas to canvas throughout the series of paintings—from the chaotic dream imagery tumbling out of a sleeping woman's head/bed in Guilt Quilt, straight through the entwining rope of the "in control" S & M figure of Tamed Tiger. The power is also expressed formally in the creation of a palette, brushstroke, and compositional structure that are both classicizing and Grand. The transition from fixated to forearmed—that is from earlier series of the artist's to her current production—has taken shape in consistently challenging acts of painting and figuration. For the viewer, the result is brilliant and overwhelming; for the artist, it must be intoxicating.
At a fundamental level, there appear to have been two issues at the root of Husar's paintings: on the one hand, the act of painting in the late 20th century—an activity regarded as suspect/retrograde/ etcetera; and on the other hand, the contemplation of identity—a postmodern preoccupation. In this sense, Husar is at once distinguished from and yet consistent with contemporary critical art practice. In that these interests—within the history of western art—suggest an antagonistic as opposed to supportive relationship, it is not surprising that Husar's paintings tend to have an unsettling effect most viewers. Subsequently, Husar's tendency to veal the underbelly of any situation is both meaningful and appropriate. The artist exposes and lays bare not merely—and incidentally—the specific persons and events, but rather the cultural and societal mores which fine acts and charge them with relevance.
Natalka Husar's new series of paintings, BLACK SEA BLUE, is important in that it provides closure with respect to the artist's earlier works. On the one hand, personal issues around identity have apparently been conquered—enabling the artist to express politically—to speak of a post-cold war world. On the other hand, BLACK SEA BLUE reveals a shift in the compositional logic of Husar's paintings; drawing on the abundance of earlier paintings and sorting out their chaos.
Of What Came Before
A principle concern of Husar's work since the 1980 FACES/FAÇADES and perhaps most notably since BEHIND THE IRONY CURTAIN, 1986, is how one creates oneself—how one formulates identity. The artist's paintings picture the cultural mores, beliefs, traditions and pastimes that have coloured her Ukrainian heritage (in the United States and Canada). The character and nature of the artist's Ukrainian roots have been passed on to her in their North American version through the efforts of Husar's parents and the Ukrainian-American community in which she was brought up. (1) She was taught to love and cherish Ukraine and its cultural manifestations. Subsequently, what the artist has carried with her of Ukraine is the memory of a culture (a memory which is not her own but that of her parents), and the reality of a transplanted culture—the displaced culture of Ukraine as it is conceived of in North America. For the artist the 'homeland' is steeped in romance and nostalgia on one level, and in theme park associations—or at best, those of Winnipeg—on the other. (2)
In earlier series of paintings Husar proposed the complexity of identity politics and determinations—whether in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and so on. In some of the works associated with BEHIND THE IRONY CURTAIN, the artist pictures the role-confusion facing first-generation immigrants. Heritage Display, 1985, depicts a young, traditionally-garbed Ukrainian dancer suspended from the ceiling beside a sign reading "Dinner $5.00". Husar posits what the real significance of the dancer might be in the context of this contemporary and Canadian, Ukrainian gathering; as cultural metaphor/ trivia, or as the real 'meal' of the evening. MILK AND BLOOD further posited the means by which we define ourselves. The work seems ultimately more concerned with issues of gender and sexuality than with those of ethnic persistence. In Latex Love, 1988, a crazed Natalka sits poised between reason and passion. The pressure to conform to 'good housekeeping' standards having rendered the artist inert—if not hysterical. The TRUE CONFESSIONS series, 1991, combined the concerns of the earlier two exhibitions regarding the roles one fills/plays. The artist's Self-Portrait as Snow White, 1991, for example, eliciting the character of the emotional baggage acquired in the process of individual development revealing the personal and communal perceptions that impinge on the identities we assume.
The social mores/constraints that Husar has questioned in her work are doubly imposed on the hyphenated-Canadian. These codes have been instilled not only from the perspective of—in Husar's case—an old-country Eastern European sensibility, but also from the requirements of the North American 'norm.' Holubizky described the character of this cultural dislocation in relation to Husar's paintings in 1985: "Cultures acquiesce to assimilation because they are plaCed in a position of social restraint; abnormal behavior being seen as "undesirable". Normal behavior (ie. "The American Way of Life") is set up for all to aspire to, but one which cannot be attained because it is largely an invention of and propagated by media."(3) Subsequently, the confusion, losses, and joys even, of staking territory or of determining a place of acceptance for a dislocated culture in an adopted 'homeland' are what have constituted the complexity of Husar's vision—both visually and thematically speaking. Much of the relevance of the paintings making up Husar's earlier series lies in their ability to expose this process of individuation for the artist, but also for others of like backgrounds.
Natalka Husar reveres art history—not, that is, the discipline—but rather the history of art, the actual endless number of paintings handed down to us through and over the ages as well as the potential of/for those created in the millennia beyond us. In the ambience of the themes which Husar addresses in her work, the artist's formal vocabulary is consequential—she wants to be "the bad boy", she wants to "do the wrong thing"—and so to painting. But, regardless of these paintings' audacity as such in the late 20th century, they recognize art historical 'isms', they aspire from and then flaunt themselves at mid-19th century orientalism, Ingres, and Art History in general—at a lineage and tradition that has provided Husar with tools with which to create.
The artist's movement, formally—from 1985 and BEHIND THE IRONY CURTAIN, through MILK AND BLOOD, to the 1991 outburst, TRUE CONFESSIONS—appears to have been progressive. Husar's move from a tentativeness to ever increasing levels of proficiency is clearly stated—and in a manner which adheres to the characteristic challenge of her images. The artist has posed difficult aesthetic problems for herself to tackle—and inevitably dominate. The complexity of Husar's painted images—of row upon row of faces, vegetable matter, and scenes, echo the complexity of the painting skills she is also confronting—of her attempt to tackle the effects of light and colour, among others. The artist says that the deep orange triangle between the heads of the last two 'bowed' children lined up in Pandora's Parcel to Ukraine is "the key to the entire painting—take it away and the whole painting would fall apart".
The development of Husar's canvases has suggested the significance she places on the activity of painting and on the picture as paint on canvas. Husar builds up her paintings, layer upon layer, considering not only the end consequences of overlay in an appropriate aesthetic sense, but in terms of its thematic logic as well. The artist has said that it is a source of power for her to know/control what lies literally 'hidden below the surface' of her paintings. Aesthetically/formally, it is important for the artist to expose the activity of painting by virtue of revealing her painterly 'progress' and theme development. It is equally important that she be able to visualize emotion and ambience—though not necessarily by virtue of a perceptual approach.
Prologue to a Tale
Though Husar does not construct her paintings, or series, in a traditional narrative format, there is something of a story taking place. The story however is not typically developed around a consistent and finite group of characters participating in an event with a beginning, middle and end. Rather her stories concern an articulation of identity and an expression of unconscious—and often emotional—responses to that sense of self and place. The responses projected in the artist's paintings are recognizable and hence make her paintings appear 'real', (the artist has described herself as a realist). Yet, because emotions—other than those of joy and happiness—are normally hidden/kept in check (for example, those such as guilt, anger, and grief), Husar's exposure of them is both confrontational and—depending upon your perception—hideous. The manifestation of these often unconscious emotions on canvas are necessarily complex and convoluted. In the free flow of the unconscious—where we can let 'negative' emotions run wild—the references which feed such emotions come from a variety of sources, they sneak into our consciousness and just as mysteriously fade out, to return again later in yet another guise.
(About) Black Sea Blue
BLACK SEA BLUE is the story of a pilgrimage and the resultant revelation and acceptance of a transforming principle character. The series is the consequence of a trip Husar made with her mother to the parental homeland in 1992.(4) Of the six paintings which make up the series, only Guilt Quilt, 1992-3, was produced prior to the visit. The other five paintings: Pandora's Parcel to Ukraine, 1993, Torn Heart, and Odalisque-at-Heart, both 1994, and Odessa's Tears and Tamed Tiger, both 1995, were produced upon the artist's return.
On one level, the BLACK SEA BLUE paintings reveal a personal and culturally-specific community. From Husar's trip, the people of letters, photographs, and parcels became physically 'real'. Subsequently, the care packages/parcels to Ukraine began to take on the smell, not of generosity of spirit, but rather of charity. Pandora's Parcel to Ukraine and Torn Heart, for instance, evoke the artist's sense of guilt at being the cousin 'who has', and her sadness at the emptiness—of prospects, hopes, people, and place—she encountered. Odalisque-at-Heart provokes a lurid image of the notion that through geographic distance one can proclaim to be anything one wants to be—how would the relatives ever know for sure? The painting refers to not only the physical but cultural differences separating relatives who supposedly share a common heritage. Odessa's Tears, a visual explosion of grief and despair, represents the literary 'fall'. The artist's body tumbles head first down the Odessa stairs as does a baby in a buggy, and a cascading deluge of bed sheets. Scarred with a 'Chernobyl' rash, the artist—indeed all in the painting—will land in a heap at the bottom of the staircase—at the shores of the Black Sea which are littered with trashy souvenirs of the recent Ukrainian Tour.
On another level, in the plethora of objects, of cheap junk-goods strewn across the paintings, of the figures whose hearts have been 'eaten' or torn out, and of Husar's 'Chernobyl children', BLACK SEA BLUE reveals itself as the voice of a suffering global community. Pandora's Parcel to Ukraine, Torn Heart, Odalisque-at-Heart, and Odessa's Tears, comment upon the absurdity of the capitalist system that has aligned cousins as 'have' and 'have nots'. The paintings evoke the despair at the disrespect for the individual propagated in Ukraine by 70 years of Soviet rule. Beyond a very personal and intimate experience of her mother's homeland interpreted to memory 'in her own eyes', these paintings suggest a grander scheme. The work exposes the fallout of a post- cold war world, deftly describing the grief and ambivalence shared by us all as we approach the uncertainty of the next millennium.
In BLACK SEA BLUE Husar uses images and foils that she has been developing and refining since c. 1977, for instance, of food in proliferation—as succulent and gagging at once; of sexual innuendo—of innocence and/or exhibitionism; of beds and tables and their role in the lives of women; and of disparate objects in awkward and intimidating juxtapositions. However, there have been provocative changes in the artist's vocabulary. While some early images remain, of food and parcels in confusion; others, like canned meat, have nearly disappeared. Still other images have only now appeared in abundance; fabric as bedding, drapery, rugs, and scarves; torn or broken hearts; as well as flushes, rashes, or tattoos on the face or body.
The fabric, like other 'Husarian' symbols, comes in proliferating abundance. The painted fabric is literally overwhelming: taking up vast portions of each canvas, items and people bleed into and out of it as it traverses canvases moving between, around, and through all six paintings in BLACK SEA BLUE—melding them together, linking them in terms of both form and content. As is the case with many of Husar's images/devices, the significance of her use of fabric appears intentionally ambiguous. On the one hand, it might be perceived as comforting, on the other, as smothering. This framing of thoughts into this or that, either/or, is an apt analogy for the scenario that accompanies the decision-making handed the individual throughout the course of their social life. There are determined norms for behaviour and attitude, as well as consequences for making the 'right' or wrong' choice. These 'choices' are perceived as being governed by the 'laws' of natural selection, but in reality are culturally imposed.
Whether as comforting or smothering, the undulating profusion of fabric in the BLACK SEA BLUE paintings is more likely to provoke connotations of bandages than bedding. As bedding, the sleep would most assuredly be fitful, if it came at all. As bandages, the drapery may be read as a means with which to wrap and swaddle an aching world on the frontiers of the year 2000. In that the draperies appear in great quantity, are classically composed and referenced, and in that they project their whiteness/ lightness physically and metaphorically—they instill both a chaotic calm and a foreboding enlightenment. Despite the swirling madness of the drapery, it stabilizes the compositional structure of the paintings by virtue of establishing precedent in the Classical Tradition. These are not simply genre paintings, they are History Paintings in the Grand Tradition. As swaddling cloth, Husar's fabric may calm the madness of the post-cold war world—certainly this political/global soothing is implicated in the artist's placating of her personal chaos as gathered through the transforming experience of pilgrimage.
The classicizing and historicizing references/capabilities in BLACK SEA BLUE are enhanced not only through the magnificent drapery, but by virtue of the architectonic structure of the paintings' formal composition. In earlier series of paintings, Husar's references to a structured space are less obvious and less frequent in appearance. Whereas previously the artist led us into the psychotic confusion of her dreams and visions, in BLACK SEA BLUE she has brought us to the reality door and kicked it open. With a much broadened brushstroke, a palette more representational than anything she has used before, and references to definable architectural elements, Husar unfolds a very real—though feverishly tragic—visual travelogue. As comprehensible, the space in these paintings might be inhabitable, its images may trigger recognition in real world news reel footage. The logic of this space, implicates us all.
Guilt Quilt effectively articulates Husar's unconscious misgivings of what she would find in Ukraine prior to her visit. The boat heading down the river, about to pass into the dark tunnel of the unknown, suggests the artist's ambivalence at the journey about to begin. Pandora's Parcel to Ukraine, Torn Heart, Odalisque-at-Heart, and Odessa's Tears speak to the 'real life' experience the artist had of a country, people, and system—of a pilgrimage gone wrong—of the end of romantic notions. Tamed Tiger, however, remains an empowering finale to the mission. Perhaps the evidence that has been gathered along the way has been dismaying, even crippling in its reality—in its ability to destroy the romance of memories and the unknown—nevertheless, the process has been transforming. This acquired power/knowledge is personified in Tamed Tiger by the pre-pubescent S & M figure/the artist who controls the meandering piece of tasselled/ unravelling rope. There is brilliant energy/hope in the innocence of her smile and the symbolic connotations of the (reclaimed) heart tattoo on her right forearm—the heart that had been ripped from the chest of the Madonna in Torn Heart.
Husar's Ukrainian pilgrimage found the theme park of her imagination splintered amid a picture of poverty and despair.
BLACK SEA BLUE proclaims that all is not well in the nostalgic homeland of romantic remembrances—that all is not well in the world. In the transformative capacity of experiential knowledge, Husar's acceptance of individual trials has led to a visionary understanding. In a marriage of classical formal concerns—with a post-cold war world twist—and desperate thematic ones, Natalka Husar expresses the melancholia that defines the fin de siècle.
Carol Podedworny is an independent curator working in Hamilton.
Black Sea Blue: Natalka Husar Paintings, Catalogue of traveling exhibition, Rosemont Art Gallery Society Inc., Regina, Saskatchewan, 1996. pp. 12-23.
Text: © Carol Podedworny. All rights reserved.