The Burning Hours opening, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2016
I moved back to New Zealand in 2010, the year Kushana Bush showed Pimp Squeaks at Ivan Anthony in Auckland. Who is this artist? I asked. Who made this? I knew I’d seen something rare and I had to know more. It wasn’t because of the sexual fandango that many of her Pimp Squeaks were in, arranged in human towers, limbs interlocked, their slender bits, like their wristwatches on display, these paintings were keeping time in a different way.
Kushana Bush has a credible byline in art historical allusions, that byline is pretty densely packed these days, with references to Indo-Persian miniatures, Cambodian wall reliefs, Japanese prints, and pre-renaissance painting. Giotto. Stanley Spencer. Beryl Cook. Kushana mixs the modern and the medieval, East and West; she makes it seem as though its has always been so.
In his essay for The Burning Hours book Justin Paton says of these paintings, “Taking a long time to make and look at they also take a long view of art and its uses.”
Yes. But you don’t need to be an authority to have a relationship with the works in The Burning Hours; in many ways these highly mannered paintings query the very nature of authority – in whose name do we act?
Did you know for instance that Hieronymus Bosch would have witnessed Heretics burned live? That piece of info was just something Kushana sent back to me in an email, as an aside. No, I didn’t know but now that I do, I can’t forget. In the show is Kushana’s work Man on Fire. The day for this specious event is otherwise quite nice, and whilst the man on fire looks understandably troubled, one senses he is a diplomat to the bitter end. The crowd looks away while the man is consumed by Kushana’s flames of gold leaf.
Gouache is her chosen medium. It’s unforgiving or as Kushana says there’s no edit, no undo. It’s a medium that I learnt from reading one of her early interviews, can be unsettled by a sneeze. It suits her exacting style well. Kushana tells me she has to learn how to paint everything in her compositions –when I asked her about the symbolism of the apple in The Apple Creeper Hours, she said it was because she knows how to paint apples. The intricacy of each detail is key, the laces in the Nikes, the lines in the wood grain, the skeins of cloud in the sky. Everything is riveting.
Kushana told me when I was writing this speech, not to worry, because only a very select few centimetres of the paintings were perfect. Which few centimetres? I wondered. Her comments always lead me to another question. I did a substantial online interview with her earlier this year and thought I had it all covered. But when I came to write about her recently I realized I had barely scratched the surface. How had I not known that she’d exchanged letters with Sister Wendy Beckett, a bonafide art world celebrity, a BBC presenter and a nun who lives a vow of silence in a caravan on the grounds of a monastery? With Kushana there’s always more.
In primary school, she was sent out of religious education class for asking too many questions. They were describing Heaven and Kushana asked what happens when the cake runs out. This is a family myth that her parents are proud of. What happens when the cake runs out? It’s a good question, one that perhaps indirectly informs The Burning Hours or at least the festive presence of bunting in some of the compositions.
The works are often fervent, although what belief the people in these narrative paintings ascribe to is harder to establish. We have the questions not the answers. Perhaps it is this quality that actually makes her works seem so timeless, so inevitable?
From her earlier choreographed figures on bare backgrounds like the Pimp Squeaks to these recent elaborate crowd compositions, Kushana pursues how we are separate and how we are one. She is an artist enthralled by rituals and her people as she calls them live in their paper parallel to our world where violence is often another occasion for communion.
I said to her at one meeting, I sense the presence of the father in your work. I wasn’t entirely sure whether that father was hers or mine, a Godhead or just years of patriarchy. Many here will know that she is named after the ancient Kushan Empire and that her Father collects Kushan coins. Kushana: it’s a good name for an artist.
Art has its big history but we also have our genealogies, some much closer to home. Some at home. My grandmother’s house was one of my first art experiences with its brass crocodile, working cuckoo clock, a selection of African masks and an antique singer sewing machine. As well as embossed wall paper in patterns long faded from my memory. Kushana’s works strike the same solemn note of intrigue. Cultures collected and contained within one room, one stage. Sometimes what we covet is inappropriate, but desire isn’t simple. It burns. We place around us the things we love.
In The Burning Hours Kushana has created artworks that offer little relief – the eye can find no respite from the world and its relentless activity. The tension of being unborn is held in all these works, the big exit, the grand finale. All the world’s a stage and eventually we step off.
At the macro level, I’ll quote curator Robert Leonard who says, “Bush’s work is keyed to the tensions of globalisation and our anxieties about understanding the Other… she nags our cosmopolitanism—our presumption to be citizens of the world, at home anywhere—emphasising instead confusion.”
At the micro-level, Kushana’s work always gives me that feeling of still being at my grandmother’s house, of looking with wonder, of hearing adults speak and not knowing but understanding that this is the fabric of life and we’re all in deep.
image: Kushana Bush, Going to Water, 2016. Gouache and pencil on paper.