A Celestial Thing: on Kushana Bush

Art News, Summer 2016


Kushana Bush lives above the town belt and passes Kereru and Tui on her walk into her Dunedin studio. “Its got windows in three directions, a corner building, bathed in light.” In her recent painting Here We Are a boy is held upside down from his ankles as though a bird. On a wooden stage, the crowd gathers close, is he the sacrifice in their ceremony? Nearby bouquets of dangling doves await their fate. Ceramics, Nike sneakers and brocaded fabrics adorn this scene of idolatry.

“Have we talked about Sister Wendy yet?” Bush asks. “She’s the nun that would talk about art on BBC television. You are going to fall in love with her. She’s incredible.”

Sister Wendy Beckett is the author of twenty-five art history books. The good sister (as Bush calls her) became an international star in the 90s when she presented a series of BBC documentaries on the history of art. Bush has fond memories of watching these shows. Behind her horn-rimmed glasses, the ample toothed Sister Wendy is the face of devotion to God and to art. The nun’s passions range from the earliest Christian icons to ‘her beloved Cezanne.’

“I actually wrote her a letter when I went full time making art,” Bush says, “I was young and she wrote one back.” Bush finished teaching to become a full-time artist in 2009. The decision was a leap of faith and Sister Wendy’s reply also seems like a minor miracle, as for the last forty years the nun has lived a sequestered life, devoted to prayer, in a mobile home on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk. Bush tells me her handwriting looked Arabic and was almost impossible to decipher. Sister Wendy said, “I don’t really write letters (part of my choice of silence) but how can I not respond to you?”

For most contemporary artists a nun would make a strange choice of mentor, but Bush’s commitment to art is devout. The daughter of “overtly secular” parents, (as a child Kushana would taunt them by saying, “I think I might become religious,”) she was named after the ancient Kushan Empire; her father is a collector of Kushan coins which blend Buddhist and Hindu imagery. Bush’s artistic inheritance is as rich and quixotic as her work. Her prize-winning paintings are renowned for their unique blend of historical influences: Indo-Persian miniatures, Japanese woodblock prints, medieval book of hours, Giotto, Piero della Francesca and her beloved Stanley Spencer.

Kushana Bush’s passion is for the icon in art. As a student at Otago in the early 2000s, she taught herself to use gouache, an opaque watercolour, inspired by its precise application in Indian miniatures. Gouache allows an artist to achieve intense detail but accepts no errors. It is the ideal medium for this perfectionist with a penchant for the past. Bush’s 2010 exhibition Pimp Squeaks is an early stand out: each rigorously choreographed painting depicted couples (and crowds) engaged in sexual hi-jinks to rival the Karma Sutra.

Now her tragi-comic gouaches are taking it to the edge. The Burning Hours is the title of her upcoming exhibition for the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The show presents over twenty-two works, half have never been shown before. The paintings are ambitious in scale, theme, and execution. Curator Lauren Gutsell says; “This body of work shows what happens when Kushana pushes her compositional limits and uses the entire surface of the paper. Whilst she’s always had an interest in creating communities, now the figure is very much anchored in a realistic pictorial space.”

Gone are the blank backgrounds that characterised Bush’s early gouaches. Since 2014, she was worked on intense compositions that populate the entire picture plane. The Burning Hours will also showcase a drawing in the technique of grisaille; the first example of Kushana ‘taking it to the edge.’ She began this untitled piece during her 2011 Frances Hodgkins residency.“It’s an endurance act,” Bush says of her painting process. “There’s no way of getting around that.” For the past two and a half years, the artist has kept an almost monastic vigil, working seven days a week in her studio. At one point she didn’t leave her chair for two days.

“Yes, it wasn’t good,” she laughs.

What would Sister Wendy say? “The one thing you need to appreciate art is a chair.” Bush revisited Sister Wendy’s 1995 documentary Pains of Glass when making The Burning Hours. This episode is filmed inside the Chapel at Kings College, Cambridge and tells the story of the passion narrative in the stained glass windows. Sister Wendy says, “stained glass windows are almost a paradigm of what art is. Art always wants to let the light shine through…if it is great art we are illuminated by it.”

The Hours series is a cycle of five new paintings by Bush that depicts stained glass windows set inside soft arches. But do they let the light shine through? Each painting contains a scene below the stained glass window that seems to parallel the activity within it. “I like the way the images play off one another,” Bush says.

Bush has never been to mass yet this series contains congregations engaged in acts of blind faith. The Covered Hours is a ritual that involves the wearing of a ridiculously prolonged headdress. The Hazing Hours features the artist’s version of a beer bong; the receiver of this sinuous apparatus looks less than pleased. The boys with knotted shirts in The Apple Creeper Hours were inspired by a real-life event. Bush was walking past Otago Boys High School on her way in to the studio; “It was the middle of winter, zero degrees and there were three of them lined up with their stomachs showing and another group all huddled in a meeting and I realized that I was witnessing a kind of high school hazing ceremony. So I was excited going back to the painting that day; I felt conviction making it once I’d seen something in real life it applied to.”

The Albino Hours heralds the arrival of a stricken baby. The inspiration for this particular work was two-fold. Bush often hears new stories on the radio in her studio (she does not have the internet) about the mistreatment of albino people in different parts of the world. In 2014, she was enchanted by an amazing 16th Century miniature from Iran that she saw at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. This miniature depicts the baby Zal saved by Simurgh, a mythical bird. Held aloft in the bird’s talons, Zal is spirited away to higher ground. For Bush, the experience at the Chester Beatty was also spiriting. As she stared down at the collection of illuminated manuscripts and miniatures presented in glass cases, she became transfixed by the use of gold leaf.

“It’s a celestial thing.”

Shamsa commemorates this awakening. A gathering of worshippers raises ornate manuscripts towards the sun. Their palms are open like the pages of their books; the decorations within are a tribute to the sunburst design found in illustrated Qurans. On the other side of Bush’s divided wooden stage, an alternate crowd holds golden sun reflectors beneath their chins. Their clothes are citrus-hued. An Islamic name Shamsa means light or radiance. “That work is a good jumping point for how I would frame this whole show,” Bush says.

Bush applies the gold to her compositions first then burnishes it using an agate stone with a handle. The gold must be rubbed with the stone at the right pressure to produce an evenness and shininess. Another layer of gold will be applied if required then Bush paints gouache around it.

“I’m either in a drawing phase or a painting phase and it’s quite hard to switch between the two.”

The drawing takes up a significant chunk of time and requires different sounds in the studio. “When I am painting I can listen to national radio and to people talking, but when I’m drawing there’s got to be classical music or silence.” Bush creates her compositions on tracing paper, the painting comes second and the detail is the final part. “I might be able to listen to a talking book whilst applying wood grain,” she jokes.

The Burning Hours is accompanied by a book of the same title that includes lavish illustrations of the works in the show. “If you’re a book lover, you just wait for this day,” Bush says. The hardback also contains three new essays by Lauren Gutsell, Heather Galbraith and Justin Paton. Each writer sheds further light on Bush’s artistic influences, technical and thematic concerns. Paton’s denouement is on point, while for Galbraith the new gouaches intentionally force “the viewer into a psychological space, where the imagination begins to arc.”

The show’s curator Gutsell, a fellow Dunediner, describes Bush’s experience of distance as paramount. “All her work stems from a second-hand source as a primary starting point.” As an artist born and bred and still based in Dunedin, Bush is fueled by images of art viewed in books. This gap has only heightened her ambition. “You aspire beyond what is on the page.”

Us Lucky Observers offers another hypothesis. Beneath a delicate archway, the crowd gathers as one. Nude children are thrown into the sky like angels. Other figures appear out on a neck, some blindfolded. A beheading is suggested, but crucially not enacted. Candles are lit. The night sky is full of hard-won beauty. Gouache dries at different times, within seconds, and to achieve this kind of flatness is a real skill. This turbulent painting is rare, a safe world rarer still. “Not quite knowing what the real thing looks like has been helpful.”

image: Kushana Bush, Shamsa, 2016. Gouache and pencil on paper.