Consuming gestures

Taking on the role of 'artist as anthropologist', Kushana Bush makes paintings that are erotic, amusing, disturbing and beautiful, but ultimately their content remains absolutely mysterious. Virginia Were reports.
Kushana Bush, Hungry Ghost with Dragonfly Jar

In a balletic leap of a (slightly twisted) imagination, Dunedin artist Kushana Bush has created a bizarre society of men living in an indeterminate time and place, and performing synchronised calisthenics with sexual overtones. The strange characters in her fetishistic paintings form a completely new species born from her exploration of the body and her interest in traditional Asian art and European medieval artistic traditions.

Like Indian miniatures her works are small and intimate, drawing the viewer into a voyeuristic examination of exquisite details. They also reveal intimate and apparently erotic acts, though the context of these gestures remains unclear.

Bush’s men seem faintly ridiculous, vulnerable (some of them are wounded and covered in bandaids) and fallible; real anti-heroes, sporting the accoutrements of a society with its roots in both the past and the present. The decorative patterns on their skimpy clothing and on the objects that sometimes surround them are as likely to come from patterns in ancient Korean art as from the distinctive Nike logo of today. Many of them sport identical watches and red and white striped socks, moustaches – even spectacles – as in the hilariously titled Turnbunkle Squat where the men are entwined, their arms linked to form a many-headed hydra.

Like any group given to slavish brand loyalty, these men are conformist and obedient, acting not as individuals but as a tightly choreographed group whose rituals remain teasingly obscure; try as we might we can’t work out what they are up to. And ‘up’ they most certainly are. As critic Andrew Paul Wood remarks in his article Eros and Thanatos – The World of Kushana Bush (Art New Zealand issue 126): “The fact that these images are drawings and paintings, seems to make them permissible under the social contract between artist and audience, art and reality. If this were photography, there would be a terrible outcry. As they stand, these images can hardly be called pornographic because pornography is almost always kitsch, banal and naive. What Bush delivers is rendered very much through a non-judgemental, impartial anthropological gaze.”

Kushana Bush, Pink Slips
Kushana Bush, Pink Slips, 2010. Gouache and pencil on paper, 77 x 57cm. Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery

In the painting Pink Slips, the men are huddled together in a dense mass of knotted limbs, and their elaborate hand gestures make them look like meditation or yoga practitioners, anxiously searching for physical release or spiritual enlightenment. They appear in a peculiarly flattened perspective against a plain white background, confounding the usual rules of perspective. In the work Calm Tight Bevy, the pale central figure is surrounded by a cluster of acolytes, variously sporting moustaches, eye patches, watches and jewellery. Disturbingly, between the central figure’s legs, we see someone else’s arm, holding a blue lighter, its flame frighteningly close to the main figure’s genitals.

Bush’s work has a distinctly satirical edge, provoking questions about power and sexuality and playing a wicked game of turning stereotypical representations of masculinity firmly on their head. When I ask her if people are shocked or more amused by her work she replies: “Even I can be in a mood where I’m sometimes amused and sometimes shocked when I look at my work”.

The paintings produced over the last two years have a strong sense of continuity, as if the ‘artist as anthropologist’ is tracking the different behaviours and habits of a new and little-known species.

“Overall I see them as a culture of people. They are their own world and I’m almost looking at different sectors of that world, depending on my interest at the time,” says Bush.

Kushana is a first generation New Zealander with British parents and her father was a collector of unusual objects (for the time) – Japanese woodblock prints and (lately) African dolls. She sees a correspondence between the fetishistic aspects of her work and the practice of collecting.

“I grew up with certain images; we had some Indian miniatures at home and some Japanese prints, which I took for granted. The eroticism in them didn’t shock me because they had been in the house since I was young. It wasn’t until later that I realised for some people these images were shocking because they weren’t part of their visual language.”

Kushana Bush, Hungry Ghost & Tiger Slippers, 2009, gouache and pencil on paper, 55 x 72 cm. Private Collection, Dunedin. From Imagine Asia: New Zealand Artists Respond to Contemporary Asia at Pataka Art+Museum, Porirua

Bush was born in Dunedin and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the School of Art, Otago Polytechnic, in 2004. She then lectured at the school for four years and has been painting full time in her Dunedin studio for the last two years. She was awarded the 2011 Frances Hodgkins Fellowship and soon after we spoke she headed to Italy to look at Giotto’s frescoes in Padua and Assisi.

“My interest in Giotto is that his figures are of this earth; they’re not idealised. I’m not looking at these works as religious paintings but more as human experiences. Those are the things I’ll be trying to understand and bring into my own work.”

It’s interesting to consider how she builds her paintings, very slowly over a long period of time. Each work begins as a drawing and she usually has several works on the go at once, though there’s a high rate of attrition and only a few make it to the finish line. The challenge of working with gouache is that, unlike other painting media, it doesn’t allow you to cover over or take away areas of colour or detail. Bush likens this to walking a tightrope because “with one drift away from what you’re doing you can lose hours, days and weeks of work, so it’s a challenge to keep your mind focussed”.

After the initial drawing stage, she blocks in the colours—a process that requires a very steady hand and much harrowing concentration; finally all the detail is added. At any point during that process something—a mistake or a water stain for instance – can happen, which makes the work irretrievable. In fact this fragility and the need for absolute precision has meant she has become very inventive, finding productive ways to fix mistakes. As well as signalling physical and psychological malaise, the bandaids on some of the figures have proved a helpful device for covering mistakes.

In the last two years Bush has been extremely productive, with solo exhibitions at Ivan Anthony Gallery and Brett McDowell Gallery, and her work included in two group exhibitions – Liquid Dreams at TheNewDowse and Ready to Roll at City Gallery, Wellington. In 2009 she worked in South Korea for three months on The Arts Centre/Asia New Zealand Foundation Arts Residency Exchange at The National Art Studio, Changdong, Seoul. The resulting series, Hungry Ghosts, was shown at the Observatory Arts Centre, Christchurch, later that year. The same year she won the prestigious Art & Australia Contemporary Art Award.

“Initially I wanted to go to Korea because of my interest in Korean folk and traditional art,” she says. “But on reflection I think it was more the physical experience of being there that affected the work: Koreans’ different body language, eating utensils, and posture – the way the women sit on the ground in the street when they’re selling things. Not being able to speak the language and not even being able to use familiar gestures came as quite a shock. So I was rendered deaf and dumb; I was starting from scratch and not knowing the rules. That is the thing that stuck with me and stuck with the work. So it’s not just a direct visual influence; it’s an understanding of humans and cultures and how we take a lot for granted; we make a lot of assumptions about how people work.”

Turnbuckle Squat, 2010
Kushana Bush, Turnbuckle Squat, 2010. Gouache and pencil on paper. 77 x 57cm. Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery

While in Korea, Bush became interested in Chaekorri painting—a tradition of still life painting dating back to the Choson Dynasty (1392 –1910), which revered scholars and scholarship. Her works share a lot in common with the flattened—and even reverse—perspective, formal arrangement and decorative patterning used in these exquisite paintings of scholars’ objects floating against a blank background, though her characters seem to be seeking transcendence through the body rather than the mind.

Look closely beyond the seductive palette and sinuous graphic details of Bush’s paintings and you can’t help but notice suffering – the scarred, marred and imperfect bodies of the men as they perform their improbable gymnastic routines. In her article Kushana Bush – Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Artist Profile/issue 5), Carol Shepheard looks at Bush’s practice from a post feminist perspective, concluding: “There is no rivalry in these paintings, no sexual dominance, no victim and perpetrator. The centre stage is shared and there are no winners, only futility, fragility and imperfection, searching one imagines for ultimate forgiveness and salvation.”

Bush likens her strange tribe to the stylised characters in British artist Stanley Spencer’s paintings. Like his figures, hers exist in a continuum between naturalism and abstraction, playing out their interpersonal dramas and perhaps standing in for the dolls Bush and her sister used to play with when they were children.

“As an adult I was looking for a way to replace my dolls because it was quite a helpful way of working out things that happened. The dolls have become my people in the paintings; I think Stanley Spencer does a similar thing,” she says.


The outlandish titles of these works—Shirt Tail Stomp, Turnbuckle Squat, Workmen’s Squat and Minor Warble give us much to smile at. They sound like almost-believable descriptions of probably impossible-to-achieve poses, and like the paintings themselves, they oscillate between pathos and pantomime—all the while undermining Bush’s disturbing subject matter with humour and just a hint of the ridiculous.

Header image: Kushana Bush, Hungry Ghost with Dragonfly Jar, 2009. Gouache and pencil on paper. 45 x 30cm. Courtesy Brett McDowell Gallery 

More from this issue

Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

Read more

Wellington artist Neil Pardington talks to Virginia Were about his love of photographing spaces that are empty, yet redolent with strangeness, mystery and narrative.
Eliana Gray reviews the exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum, 12 August 2022–19 November 2023.
Hamish Keith on Barry Brickell, 1935–2016.
Areez Katki reviews the exhibition at Season, 7–28 January 2023.
Pioneer mystic–abstractionist Hilma af Klint arrives in the antipodes. Aaron Lister reports.
Leon van den Eijkel merges the Mondrian colours of his childhood, the modernist grid and the lushness of the Pacific to make work filled with joie de vivre.
Two faces of January in Joanna Murray-Smith's Switzerland, reviewed by Art News Editor Connie Brown.
Established in 2002, the biennial Walters Prize is New Zealand’s most significant contemporary art prize, setting out to put contemporary art in the public spotlight and to make it a more urgent and widely debated feature of New Zealand’s cultural life.