The Museum of Russian Art doesn't often show works by living artists, but for Leon Hushcha, it made an exception.
"Leon Hushcha: Balancing Act" is something of a retrospective, featuring a collection of the Minneapolis artist's paintings, drawings and sculpture from the 1960s through 2018, but it is by no means a complete picture of his career.
Incredibly prolific, Hushcha has stuck with the two styles he honed in the '60s and '70s: abstract work, in which he mixes glitter into swirls and splatters and carvings, and figurative paintings that explore the contours of bodies and faces with thick lines. Flipping back and forth between these two styles reflects his fascination with the conscious nature of figurative work and the more emotionally driven demands of abstraction.
There's a curiously intuitive feel to this art, giving it a folksy/outsider/DIY sensibility even though Hushcha is a well schooled artist, with a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an MFA from the University of Minnesota.
Hushcha, who grew up in Minnesota and is of Ukrainian descent, was born in a displaced-persons camp in Austria in 1949, among people uprooted by World War II. His family soon emigrated to the United States, sailing across the Atlantic in a journey reflected in the motifs of water and fish that come up in Hushcha's paintings. We see this in "Black Fish Hat" (1991), a portrait of a woman with a Picasso-esque cubist divided face, each side a different color, with a black fish atop her head.
This theme of memory comes up in a new work, "Anna," a watercolor, ink and pencil piece portraying the U.S. alien registration card that his mother received upon arriving at Ellis Island. It's a blown-up driver's license-style mug shot of his mom, holding up a placard with her name, but Hushcha has painted two doves and rolling water on the photo. The background ornamentation reflects his fascination with the shining gold and decorative borders he saw as a young boy going to St. Michael's and St. George's Ukrainian Orthodox Church in northeast Minneapolis.
Memories continue in "The Young Magician" (2006), a painting of a yellow-faced boy wearing a beige suit against a red background. We imagine that this is Leon himself, a portrait of the young artist in retrospect. Its eeriness seems to get to something deeper, with a style that echoes but does not replicate that of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, whose gray, ghostly paintings of soldiers based on newspaper clippings recall the collective memory and trauma of war.
While growing up in Minnesota, Hushcha loved painting and running, but an accident in high school left him unable to run. So he painted. But he also loves glitter. The artist makes his work sparkle, often throwing a handful of glitter into the middle of an abstraction, as in the playful "Glitterama" (2013). Other abstract works bring up a specific sweetness, such as "Chocolate" (2015), a giant canvas covered in drips of brown, yellow, white, black and red. Abstract shapes and lines are carved into "Salmon" (2016), a shimmery acrylic and glitter painting with layers of gold, silver and beige.
The starkly different styles in this show feel like two different artists. The first would be a spirited young Minnesota painter who came of age in the late 1960s and '70s, influenced by Picasso and Pollack. The other is a Ukrainian immigrant who is clearly still affected by that experience as a 72-year-old man.
This is not the first time Hushcha has been shown at the Museum of Russian Art; he also had a pop-up show in 2016. It's hard to follow his trajectory through this exhibition, installed by curator Masha Zavialova around the second-floor perimeter of the museum's central atrium. There's no real chronological or thematic order, and I wished that Zavialova had offered more contextualization of his work. Certainly, Hushcha was schooled at a time when professors were teaching abstract painting, and he has an interesting background, but without more historical and cultural detail, it's hard to place his work.
However, some nice touches bring the artist's studio into the space, as with "Bench" — the actual workbench where, in lieu of an easel, the artist has painted many of his works since 1978. As you might imagine, it is a work of art itself, covered in paint smatterings of every color. Zavialova spotted it during a studio visit and thought to bring it into the exhibition. Small enough to be a footstool, it brings a welcome physical element that's mostly lacking in this show.
Hushcha's one and only rug commission hangs on the wall of the stairwell. Called "J.B. Bay" (2012), it is full of orange and blue swirls that feel like another water reference. One other sculptural work that Zavialova found in Hushcha's studio stands out: "Dancing in Villach" (2009), three tube-shaped pieces of birchbark with women's faces painted onto them in acrylic. It turns out that Villach is the Alpine town in southern Austria where the artist was born.
Works like these suggest a depth in Hushcha's art that's harder to see in his Pollack-like abstractions. His voice shines through the most in these more emotionally difficult pieces that bring his complicated past into the present.