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Kushana Bush: All Things to All Men

Bush's latest exhibition in Dunedin features witty visual commentaries on the new world order, says David Eggleton.

A cartographer of contemporary anxieties, Kushana Bush is one of art’s young arrivistes, refreshing our stale sensibilities with her witty visual commentaries on the new world order of the early 21st century. Her latest sharp-eyed exhibition, All Things to All Men – a title taken from the First Book of Corinthians – consists of 31 “miniature” paintings produced during her tenure as the 2011 Frances Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago.

Here, in these multi-hued gouaches, all produced on paper panels of the same size, occasionally butted together to form triptychs, Bush once again meditates, although somewhat less feverishly than in earlier exhibitions, on the post-hippy sensibility of the touchy-feely, warm-fuzzy kind – one still searching for an advert-free earthly paradise at a time when the momentum of commodification is moving, seemingly inexorably, in lockstep with the momentum of globalisation.

Bush’s funky scenesters, belonging to assorted global diasporas, mill around and dance or parade in groups, their crocodile queues and broken conga-lines reminiscent of both religious worshippers and travellers flocked together at airports waiting to turn out their luggage for customs and security inspection.

Bush paints people in motion listening to an inner music, postures invariably goofy and awkward, knock-kneed and splay-footed, solipsistic and puppet-like, and offers syncopated contrapuntal swirling pantomimes, in which identity has become a pick-and-mix affair of lifestyle choices, signified by arabesques of garlands, by patterned clothing, by domestic accessories – and even by skin tones. Her eccentric historicism, as shown by her anthropological field notes, reveals the world as a smorgasbord of radical chic available for the masses.

In The Throat of Summer, for example, Bush zooms in on the slightly comical dress sense of the suburban proletariat, who appear to have trawled malls and garage sales to come up with ensembles that are a kind of street theatre. This gaggle of art-worshippers, each clutching a “collectable” ceramic, indicate how fossicking for “antiques” – once the preserve of the knowing few – is now overrun by the unknowing many who carry away “bargain” replicas landed by the containerful.

Art appreciation is also Bush’s subject in All Things to All Men, another marker of her own progress from a bog-standard Dunedin gothic expressionism (she graduated from the Otago Polytechnic School of Art in 2004) to an increasingly sophisticated command of a singular drawing-and-painting style. She has found a way of connecting to the traditional and canonical by looking at art’s margins and incorporating world art, with influences drawn from Indian, Persian, Japanese and African traditions, as well as medieval Europe. She has industriously gained an encyclopaedic
visual vocabulary, enriching her own simple confluences of line and colour.

Bush conveys a thoroughly modern ambivalence about cultural entanglements, even as she surfs the waves of emotion they generate – the fetish versus the feminine, the taboo versus the tame, baggage versus bacchanalia. Yet the dissonance of ideological conflict finds successful resolution in her detailcrammed shapes surrounded by blank space – the sculptural folds of a black plastic rubbish sack, the swashbuckling swoop of draperies, the needle-thin straps of flat sandals – which point to a sure aesthetic sense. As curator Natalie Poland tells us in the show’s catalogue essay:

“Bush grew up in a home decorated with non-European art, including ukiyo-e prints, Indo-Persian miniatures and African dolls collected by her English parents.” Like certain Otago artists of an older generation – Jeffrey Harris and Robin Swanney- Macpherson in particular – Bush is an enigmatic and emblematic storyteller with a depth of art-historical allusion, which in this show ranges from the Orientalism of Ingres and Matisse to the parodic “bad girl” school of painting associated with Alice Neel and Marlene Dumas. A neatnik in method, Bush uses swot and graft to conjure up political agitation, existential dread, psychosexual urgency – a general atmosphere of anarchic, and occasionally euphoric, celebration.

ALL THINGS TO ALL MEN, Kushana Bush, Hocken Gallery, Dunedin, until April 14; TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland, April 23-July 1.