Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Andrew Paul Wood on Kushana Bush in Christchurch

Kushana Bush: Hungry Ghosts
September 30 – October 25 2009
Observatory Art Room, South Quad, Christchurch Arts Centre

Je serai ton cercueil, aimable pestilence!
Le témoin de la force et de ta virulence,
Cher poison prepare par les anges! liqueur
Qui me ronge, ô la vie et la mort de mon coeur!

[Delightful pestilence! I shall be your coffin,
The witness of your strength and of your virulence,
Beloved poison prepared by the angels! Liqueur
That consumes me, O the life and death of my heart!]

Charles Baudelaire, Le Flacon.

Dunedin-based painter Kushana Bush has returned from her eight-week Korean sojourn on the 2009 Arts Centre/Asia New Zealand Foundation Artist Residency Exchange, and the resultant gouaches are now on display at the Arts Centre in a room off the Observatory. The intense, grotesque-sublime style that earned her the residency (reminiscent of Indo-Persian miniatures and Japanese woodblock prints) is still very much in evidence, though now thoroughly saturated with motifs and imagery lifted from South Korea’s material and cultural heritage, experienced during visits to the South Korean National Museum from her base at the Changdong Art Studio in Seoul.

The exhibition title Hungry Ghosts is a reference to a Buddhist concept – the hungry ghost (heavily popularised in the West be Hollywood adaptations of Japanese horror movies like The Grudge and The Ring) is a spirit doomed to perpetual hunger and craving as it haunts the margins of the human world. This is partly autobiographical, a reference to Bush’s homesickness for the familiar, and the inevitable difficulties of simple things like buying and knowing how to prepare food, where you can’t speak the language and don’t know much about the customs. Bush is vegetarian and a lot of Korean food is meat-centred, putting her in a rather awkward position in the context of Korean etiquette when the guest of others.

This has melded well with Bush’s work, where decadent, tormented and pasty figures always seem to be yearning for something, and the decorative traditions of Asia have always featured prominently. “The experiences of this journey to Seoul,” says Bush, “will continue to affect my work for years to come; my discoveries of these traditional artworks will sustain many more ideas and help to contextualise the art of the East. It has developed the devices used in my work and has helped me to understand my own freedoms as an artist in New Zealand; our rather short history as a country and geographical isolation encourages us to pick and choose the influences we use rather than being weighed down by traditions”.

That “pick and choose” is right on the money – it’s the way New Zealand art has kept in touch with Europe and America for over a century. It seems fitting that the same magpie eye should be turned on a part of the world we have ceased to think of as the exotic and alien Far East, because we now understand it as the rich and politically powerful Near Nor’west.

Bush’s style is as polished and sophisticated as the subject material is perverse and voyeuristic. Yet, Bush has a knack for making the most bizarre and monstrous characters seem worthy of our pity; the most elaborate arrangement of cuts or boils seem as delicate and mesmerising as an ornate fabric pattern. The level of detail is extraordinary, painstaking and precise, resulting in some of most extraordinary and covetable painting seen in New Zealand in years (and, if I may allow myself the modest cough of the minor prophet – I am pleased to have been one of the early discoverers).

The palette is restricted to muted pinks and the sorts of greys and greens normally associated with something you might find long-forgotten at the back of a Scarfie’s fridge. The work has toned down considerably from the dominant and somewhat overwhelming rubber-fetishist bubblegum pink of Bush’s first major exhibitions of a couple of years ago. Aubrey Beardsley-esque line delineates mildly pornographic orgies (shades of suburban desperation) that in tone are a sort of compromise between the French decadent symbolists of the late nineteenth century, and the Weimar period Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and Verist artists like Kirchner, Grosz, Dix and Beckman in the early twentieth century.

The African fetishes and phallic statues of the BVM (that’s Blessed Virgin Mary to you heathens out there – looking suspiciously condom-packed) scattered around in previous paintings have been replaced by Korean ceramics and metal work, and some of partners of these suspect couplings take on the appearance of oriental courtesans (well, perhaps recently disinterred ones – but there’s plenty of precedent for those kind of horrors in East Asian literature. I recommend Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things – a collection of Japanese supernatural tales collected at the beginning of the previous century and available as a free download on-line). Bush has the imagination of an Edgar Allan Poe – and it’s a wonderful thing.

Bush tells me that the South Koreans found her interest in their historical art, and figurative art in general, curious, because there is an overwhelming drive in the art scene and elsewhere for newness and modernity, particularly with a received Western slant. But for Bush, suddenly in a new and intimidating context in which she was not always able to communicate, these artefacts represented something concrete upon which her mind could gain purchase.

The paintings smoulder away sumptuously, even dangerously, like unexploded grenades in the freshly cleaned up and painted room in the Arts Centre’s Observatory building. It seems an appropriate setting, overlooking the camellia bushes.

The Christchurch Arts Centre/Asia New Zealand Foundation Artist Residency Exchange has been good for New Zealand artists, but also great for Christchurch, bringing a number of South Korean artists to the Garden City like Sukjoon Jang and Lee Joong Keun. This means Cantabrians know a lot more about contemporary Korean art than their North Island cousins, and Korean contemporary art is fast becoming a major player in the international game.

The two images are Hungry Ghost & Tiger Slippers, Gouache and Pencil, 330 x 330mm, and Hungry Ghost with Sprig and Celadon Chamber Pot, Gouache and Pencil,285 x 445mm. (Courtesy of the artist and the Arts Centre/Asia New Zealand Foundation Artist Residency Exchange, 2009. )

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