Medieval and Modern

NZ Listener, 13 December, 2015


Who is the Alabaster Man: a monument or a sacrifice? He is buoyed on the shoulders of the crowd, his arms spread in the shape of the cross. Behind his head, a white picket fence and two-story house trim the hill, but this is no scene of peace. The crowd in the foreground shifts around the wooden gates of the city like refugees.

“That is the strange thing about these narrative paintings, they really do move and flex with current events,” says artist, Kushana Bush.

The Alabaster Man is from a 2014 series of “tragi-comic” gouaches by the Dunedin based painter currently on display at Wellington City Gallery. Bush’s delicate and intricate gouaches are exhibited in a room alongside the Map of Truth and Beliefs, a seven-metre tapestry by Turner Prizewinning artist Grayson Perry. The cross-dressing Perry is a British institution originally known for producing classical vases with X-rated themes. Bush is a young New Zealander whose gouaches recall “the art of other places and earlier times” from Indo-Persian miniatures to Renaissance paintings. At City gallery their craft-centric works share allusions both medieval and modern: together they offer a vision of the Western world ill at ease.

Perry’s Map of Truth and Beliefs was first shown in 2011 as part of The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum and is carbon dated to the world post 9/11.

Perry said; “I wanted to make a sort of altarpiece, a map of heaven…The charge of it is in the clash between the prosaic and the spiritual. I was thinking of pilgrimage in a wider non-religious sense, so I included places of pilgrimage that I googled.”

That explains why the map includes Sturgis, a small mid-West American town famous for hosting an annual motorcycle rally and the London shopping mall Westfield. Perry collapses the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Silhouettes of helicopters, fighter jets and aircraft rupture the sky. A river runs through the tapestry lined by scrambled sites from Graceland to Ground Zero. In the right-hand corner is a representation of Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. But inside Mecca stands Big Ben, the London Shard, one Twin Tower. The geography in the Map of Truth and Beliefs is off, its moral compass lost. This is a picture of the world pre-Isis.

After the recent attacks on Paris its hard not to interpret the wild bear in this tapestry as a dog of war – after all the bear is flanked by a suicide bomber. And Perry has placed his childhood teddy bear – Alan Measles – in the centre as the eye of god.

“All gods are like cuddly toys insofar as they are inanimate things onto which people project their ideas,” Perry told The Economist.

Kushana Bush also mixes and matches religious symbols but her intimate works are more beguiling than the coarse cartoony lines of Perry’s woven tapestry. Her gouaches combine Christianity, pagan rituals, the orient and gold leaf. Curator Robert Leonard says: “Bush’s works speak to our current moment – the tensions of globalization, the proximity of the other.”

But which other? Bush’s crowded compositions represent a Tower of Babel where Gods are worshipped but nothing makes sense. Her Holyman is passed head first through a stone archway; his thumb suckled by a reverent pilgrim. Bush’s worshippers are ecstatic, perverted, bored. Are her pilgrims making progress?

Her recent gouaches also mark a significant shift in technical ambition. For the first time she grounds her figures in landscapes. Babes and Fools jumbles together a christening and a circumcision and is set on a wooden stage that could also be an allegory for our social media orientated world.

“A painting is like a play,” Bush tells me.

Her crowd scenes are so potent because they are also the site of our deepest anxieties. Are we innocent or complicit in the violence on stage? Birds soar and sweep through the sky. The Alabaster Man is a sitting duck, a soft target.

So be careful what you covet. It’s not God in the details of Bush’s paintings but commerce: a Lacoste label, a pair of Nike trainers, an antique china vase or perhaps one of Grayson Perry’s ceramics?

This is a timely show from two strong artists as the secular world asks once again: what can we hold sacred?

image: Kushana Bush, detail from Life, 2015. Gouache on paper.