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Books by Ann Shelton and Kushana Bush do their art proud

There is something notionally satisfying about books that accompany art exhibitions – the catalogue on steroids.

They are a lasting keepsake, a reference, a gorgeous bit of eye candy, an excuse for the designer to go all out, and for the artist they say, “I have arrived”. Often they fit more information in than the exhibition itself could ever hope to, and for some it’s the only opportunity to understand a show that, for whatever reason, can’t be physically visited.

Exhibition books are as different from each other as snowflakes and, sadly in New Zealand publishing, all too few.

Ann Shelton – Dark Matter, accompanying Auckland Art Gallery’s photography survey (and longlisted in the Illustrated Non-Fiction Category of this year’s New Zealand Book Awards), advertises its ­canonicity and importance by coming in a cover box, rather as one might turn up to a party in a fur coat – both emphatic and somewhat anachronistic.

It is a beautiful production, bringing together the important phases of Shelton’s career, among which are: the oddly ­clinical Nan Goldin-esque Redeye (1995-97); a personal favourite, Abigail’s Party (1999), drawing on the fabulously lurid set of the 1977 BBC production of Mike Leigh’s play; and the gorgeous a library to scale (2006), with its trompe l’oeil shelves of hand-covered volumes and the ­punctum of its final empty unit.

Ann Shelton’s Golden Girl [twin set #1]. Photo/Courtesy of Ann Shelton

Then there is the part of the practice that sniffs out the trauma behind the banal: the truck stops of Florida where serial killer Aileen Wuornos worked her beat, catalogued like the water towers of Bernd and Hilla Becher; dismembered parts of the Wanganui police computer (coyly entitled the city of gold and lead, referencing both the components and the human enslavement of John Christopher’s Tripods novels); and the murder sites and lunatic asylums. With the exception of her portrait work, often the human ­element is out of frame or only alluded to by absence or association.

The newest works have an animistic quality to them – the catalogue of Hitler’s gifted oak trees, and intimately intricate ikebana displays of abortifacient plants. This is a new twist in the career of an endlessly mutable artist, a chameleonic nature brought out in the series technologies of the self (remote self-portraits). Certainly, bringing together all these disparate and individual selves has been cleverly done.

Her work gets a thorough consideration in essays by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Ulrich Bauer, Donna West Brett, Dorita Hannah and John Di Stefano, and ­curator Zara Stanhope, although for an artist whose meanings are usually quite straightforward and accessible, the theorising sometimes feels like unnecessary padding. There is also an informative interview with the artist by Cassandra Barnett.

Close-up of Flogging, by Kushana Bush. Photo/The Michael Buxton Collection

Kushana Bush: The Burning Hours, accompanying Bush’s show at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, takes a lower-key design approach, preferring to leave the artist’s exquisite visuals to do the talking.

For one thing, there’s a lot less text – a mere three essays (Lauren Gutsell, Heather Galbraith and Justin Paton) and an introduction by gallery director Cam McCracken – but then this is just one show of work made between 2014 and 2016, not a mid-career survey. This is a setting of context rather than a thematic analysis of minutiae.

Bush’s meticulous artwork, haunted by absurdist details, leaps off the page in all its glorious flatness. Her aesthetic has been pretty constant – still the strong influence of Indo-Persian miniatures, the Aubrey Beardsley-esque fluidity and riotous ­pattern, though the floating void ukiyo-e backgrounds have given way to more ­recognisable intimations of space and place, quattrocento settings and Rita Angus-like stained glass windows. It is a tour de force in “horror vacui”, with a chaotic multi-ethnic cast expressing every imaginable emotion in a ­curiously deadpan way. Humans become tessellated things, as incidentally ­decorative as the patterns on their robes and draperies.

I struggle to think of many New ­Zealand painters – Bill Hammond and Shane Cotton also, maybe – who have so perfectly synthesised such disparate elements into a fully conceived aesthetic universe.

Like the Shelton volume, The Burning Hours also has its indulgences – the subtle blue-green hint to the pages certainly works well in terms of overall integrated design, but plays merry havoc with how I perceive Bush’s palette, making it seem darker to my eye than it probably is. But that is a minor cavil.

Both books are sumptuous visual feasts. It is wonderful to see New Zealand publishers and designers stepping up to the challenge of presenting the taonga of our talented visual artists as they deserve – and when all is said and done, that’s what matters, because it’s all about the art. Kudos all round.

ANN SHELTON – DARK MATTER (Auckland Art Gallery/Potton and Burton, $90)

KUSHANA BUSH – THE BURNING HOURS (Dunedin Public Art Gallery, $49.99)

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.