Fire and Water, Clay and Paint

Natalka Husar’s most recent exhibition at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, called “Soaking Wet and On Fire,” is a delightful surprise. The work of this Toronto-based painter is always a delight, but the surprise enters by way of a new medium. The exhibition features 10 ceramic works and one large painting. (There is also an excellent catalogue that reproduces more ceramic pieces than are included in the show, with essays by Gardiner curator Sequoia Miller and critic Sarah Milroy, a poem by Janice Kulyk Keefer, and the artist’s very smart inventory describing the contents of the painting.)

Natalka Husar, Losing Mama, 2019–2023, acrylic, lenticular postcard, thread and notions on linen and canvas, 224 × 305 cm. Courtesy Gardiner Museum, Toronto.

What the ceramics share with Husar’s painting is that their content comes from her engagement with and reflection on her Ukrainian heritage. Husar was born in New Jersey but emigrated to Canada in 1973 in her early 20s, and has lived here ever since. Her paintings are wry observations about the lives of Ukrainians both in Europe and in the diaspora. They are shrewd and witty and irresistibly engaging.

The ceramics, too, display all those characteristics. Her reason for making them was entirely accidental. She was walking on Adelaide Street and saw an advertisement for a space, which turned out to be a basement ceramics studio. This was the 1970s. “I think not knowing a medium makes you try harder; it makes you push yourself,” she says. She began making what was familiar. The ceramic works use the food and attitudes of her cultural heritage, which she presents with an edge of affectionate irony. The dinner plate for Sex and the Single Ukrainian Girl, 1977, includes red boots, a bra and a necklace masquerading as meat, potatoes and vegetables. In Golden Form, 1977, a sheet of varenyky, the delicious half-moon-shaped dumpling that is one of Ukraine’s national dishes, is transformed from dough to gold. These cultural references are markers for “discomfort and yearning, awkwardness and the guilt of colliding cultures. They create emotions that I couldn’t articulate, and they allowed me to show love and affection at the same time. I think with this body of work, I was just sharpening my teeth. I wasn’t biting.”

When she started, she knew nothing about any Canadian artists working in clay, including Joe Fafard, Vic Cicansky and Marilyn Levine in Regina, or Gathie Falk and Liz Magor in Vancouver. “I was raised with pop art, so I was aware of George Segal, Meret Oppenheim and Marisol.”

Natalka Husar, installation, “Soaking Wet and On Fire,” 2023. Courtesy Gardiner Museum, Toronto. Left: TV Dinner Sviat Vechir, 1977, 25 × 32 cm; Breakfast January 7, 1977. Collection of Christina and Walter Kudryk. Right: Sometimes, I feel like that at the banquet, 1977, 23 × 32 cm. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

What is most conspicuous about her work is that unlike traditional ceramic sculptures that are placed on pedestals or the floor, Husar frames hers for the wall. Her presentation was determined by what she understood them to be: “I absolutely thought of them as paintings,” she says. “From the time I was five years old I wanted to be a serious artist, so if I was going to do ceramics, I didn’t want them to be little tchotchkes on the ground. I wanted them to have the authority that painting had.” After completing 18 pieces between May and December of 1977, she infrequently returned to ceramics.

The single painting in the exhibition brings Husar back to her mothering medium. She has always been a painter at heart and this large work (224 x 305 centimetres) is called Losing Mama. Husar worked on it from 2019 to 2023 and it is composed with acrylic, a lenticular postcard, thread and notions on linen and canvas (the notions include a magnetized frying pan lid, an embroidered heart, zippers, flesh-coloured bra snaps and a self-portrait sewed over the face of a ’50s housewife). “It didn’t start out being a painting about losing my mother or taking care of my mother or anything like that,” Husar says. “I started out seeing if I could do a painting using this tacky Soviet embroidery that is so low on the aesthetic hierarchy scale.” The painting then went through a rhizomatic process where things cropped up everywhere: a bundle of sheets, a woman in a red dress using a snake to unplug a drain, the instrument panel of an airplane, a flight attendant dressed in a bustier and badass boots, a snake pit of plumbing pipes, a head on a platter, pots and pans, hanging clothes, figures in a canoe rendered in sepia (which is the colour of memory), embroidered birds and flowers and a sink in which her mother sits like a baby waiting for a bath. Natalka nursed her mother for more than two years. While they had always been close, the caring made them closer. Husar says, “My mother died January 30th, the funeral was February 1st, I went to my studio on February 2nd to water the plants and collect my thoughts and I did this little sketch, a self-portrait.” Finding herself in the studio was the beginning of the painting Losing Mama. It tells an epic story of love and care delivered through everyday objects and quotidian activities. Her mother’s christened name was Daria, which means “to give.” Natalka is her mother’s daughter; as a measure and an offering of their lives together, Losing Mama is a remarkable gift.

Natalka Husar, Sex and the Single Ukrainian Girl, 1977, ceramic with glaze, 27 × 33 cm, support: table linen over wood, 51 × 51 cm. Courtesy Gardiner Museum, Toronto. Collection of Danylo and Oksana Struk.

On the first page of the English and Ukrainian bilingual exhibition catalogue, which was printed and bound in Ukraine during the present war, Husar explains the origin of the exhibition’s title. Her mother’s reaction to the frenzied life her daughter was leading was mokre horyt, soaking wet and on fire. Husar knows that ordinarily the expression would convey impossibility, “but on my mother’s tongue, it meant the opposite, a defiance of the impossible.”

Then, at the bottom of the page, Husar adds a piece of information: “This book was printed in Ukraine, at war for its survival. Defying the impossible.” She recognizes this exhibition couldn’t have been done 10 years ago. “I never thought I would show it,” she says, “and everything about the show is about now. It was a project above and beyond.” She’s right. Fire and water, clay and paint, the realization of a pair of defiant impossibilities. ❚

Natalka Husar, installation view, “Soaking Wet and On Fire,” 2023. Courtesy Gardiner Museum, Toronto. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

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