Arts

Non-concrete Blond

Natalka Husar captures moments of uncertainty and ambiguity in Blond With Dark Roots

Every moment of every day we make another decision. It can be as small
(albeit traumatizing) as figuring out what kind of coffee to buy at Second
Cup, or as big as the choice between forgiving a friend or holding onto a
lifelong grudge. Oddly, we don’t have a word for this state of
transition, but Tibetan Buddhists do; they call it the bardo. The term
usually refers to the state between one life and another, but it can also
signify any fateful moment in which we decide our future path. Natalka Husar
does a remarkable job of painting the bardo. Not that her show Blond With
Dark Roots is even vaguely Tibetan, but as I looked at her engrossing
paintings, I found myself caught in a whirlwind of emotional decisions.
Should I laugh? Should I weep? Should I feel sexy? Innocent? Attracted?
Revolted? Depressed? Amused? There’s no firm emotional ground to stand
on in Husar’s art; it’s like shifting sands, filled with the fear
and hope of all possibilities. As I first enter Douglas Udell Gallery, two
pubescent girls look me straight in the eye. They peer from Husar’s
larger-than-life-size canvases with an unflinching glance. A fur coat wraps
softly around one girl; another suggestively lifts a hot-red-painted eyebrow.
Just as I begin to fear that Husar is intimating something erotically
ominous, I look again and realize these are only young girls playing dress-up
games. “They are girls in the age of limbo, just at the verge of
sexuality, between adult and child, between being manipulated and
manipulating,” Husar explains. “The girl that’s 13, you
don’t know if she will be jailbait or a supreme judge in the Upper
Court of Canada. My feelings towards them are ambivalent, between attraction
and repulsion.” But these girls are not only caught between sexuality
and play, between childhood and maturity; they’re also hovering between
two worlds. Husar’s imaginary characters are Soviet immigrants.
“The awkwardness that’s in [adolescent] sexuality is parallel to
the awkwardness in dislocation,” she says. These girls have not shed
their Slavic identity; something in their faces, the pulled-back hair, the
tentative stance is still from the old world. Yet, standing at the crossroads
of their future, of new life in America, they are filled with hope mingled
with the fearful expanse of their potential. “These girls are
empowered,” Husar says. “Anything is possible, they can
adjust.” The room the girls stand in hardly resembles the typical
teenage bedroom. There are no posters of teen idols, no piles of clothing on
the floor. Instead, a quirky stuffed rabbit holds a bottle of champagne in
one corner of the canvas, while an odd assortment of paraphernalia fills the
room as in some medieval allegory. “A lot of the things I started to
paint, the paraphernalia, is also in-between cool and not cool, furs are
fashionable and unfashionable,” Husar explains. “Champagne is
delicious and tacky, a travel bag is hip and pathetic.” Each ambiguous
and perplexing object has a story to tell. For example, after Husar’s
95-year-old aunt died, she left 25 old travel bags in her closet. “As I
picked them up they were embedded with this plastic, brittle hope, yearning
to travel again,” Husar says wistfully. “At the same time, there
was the impossibility of that hope.” Husar’s work is not
autobiographical—at least not in the way we might expect. True, she
comes from a Slavic background, but she was born in the United States and
never experienced the trauma of immigrant dislocation. She is a confident,
articulate woman at the height of her career. One might say that she has
arrived. So where does her show, this epic allegory of transitional states
come from? A large self-portrait hanging at the entrance gives us a clue to
this mystery. It’s a portrait of an artist as a “has-been.”
Now, Husar is the opposite of a has-been—her star is rising swiftly,
and she’s becoming one of Canada’s better-known artists. Yet
beneath all the trappings of success, Husar has a profound knowledge of the
fragility, the ambiguity and the risks of being a creative person. “No
matter how successful you are,” she says, “you’re only as
good as your last show. A part of the creative process is constantly feeling
that you might lose it. With every painting it’s a huge gamble.”
Facing that vast, hopeful expanse of a white canvas is like facing your
entire future. Just like the immigrant girls in her paintings, Husar faces an
infinity of choices, and the all the yearning and dread of an uncertain
future hang in the balance of every decision she makes. V Blond with Dark
Roots By Natalka Husar • Douglas Udell Gallery • To May 22

Leave a Comment