STEPHEN BUSH - 'A Troubled Mind'

 SUTTON GALLERY - 20th May – 17th June 2023

NB - click on images for enlargement

A review of the artist’s 2016 show, ‘Festooned’ suggested an elegant formal structure to the artist’s style and argued for his place in recent Australian art history. In the seven years since, the work has broadened in surprising ways and is perhaps best understood as a further, senior stage to his career (Bush, b.1958). The title of the current show hints that it is not entirely a comfortable step. This review reflects on that stage, on the difficulties of sustaining a project while avoiding stagnation. It is a large show, thirty works (the show was visited before the hanging was complete, so this figure is provisional. A preview catalogue lists thirty-one works). Many are hung in a dense, salon-style cluster, deliberately jumbling large and small, new and older work, drawings and paintings, in order to urge an underlying consistency.

Installation view  

That consistency is very much at issue due to a number of surprising departures. First amongst these is the use of wooden doors, laid on their sides, minus handles but still hinged, as an evident support for the four largest paintings.

Eikenberg’ (2021) 164.5  X 233 cm oil, enamel on plywood panels

Following this, there are two small student works from 1979 painted in a spare, crisp style, one of a suburban milkbar, the other of a figure before a caravan. Neither betrays a glimpse of the adroit historical pastiches that are to preoccupy the artist through the late eighties and much of the nineties, nor the photo-realist virtuosity he subsequently stakes out at the turn of the millennium.

‘The Endless Sea’ (1979) 121.5 X 166 cm acrylic, oil on canvas

Matching these anomalies, are three recent paintings of empty or abandoned service stations, in a much looser, sketchier style, not quite ‘open air’ as the artist readily concedes, more a Tuymans-like summary of a photographic source, with the attendant detached attitude.

‘Thornapple’ (2022) 44.5 X 62.5 cm oil on canvas

To these, are added six large coloured pencil drawings that are not preparatory sketches but finished works, executed in a novel medium for the artist, largely as experiment. Rather than greater spontaneity or engagement however, the works often seem deliberate and rigid for resisting a more linear treatment usually accorded the medium. Hard Faber-Castell leads add to the effort.

‘Scheeles Green’ (2022) 123.2 X 168.7 cm coloured pencil on paper

There are, to be sure, many familiar elements within the pictures, traditional Lowlands architecture, violet monochromes giving full rein to enamel marbling and phantasmagorical backgrounds, abundant small goods displayed before waterlogged landscapes, figures in period costume, abandoned and converted delivery vans, imposing Modernist office blocks and heavy industry.

‘Lost In Music’ (2021) 168 X 183 cm oil and enamel on canvas

‘Lady Campbell Weed – Lift To Experience’ (2022) 44.5 X 62.5 cm oil and enamel on canvas

A post modern dystopia is still very much to the fore, but it is no longer one entirely grounded upon the resources of painting, the resources of painting no longer entirely grounded upon post modern dystopia. The result is a more diffuse approach that beckons to broader issues of image source and materials, but must do so in passing or only marginally. In other words there is a trade-off between an effective, but narrower discourse and a less focussed but more ambitious one. If the artist flags a troubled mind at this point it is because weighing up the pros and cons here is far from easy. Does one risk saying too much about too little or saying too little about too much?

‘Treaty of Tourdesillas’ (2021) 183 X 183 cm oil and enamel on canvas

The changes begin in 2020, with a project in partnership with old friend and fellow painter, Jon Campbell in which they exchanged shows at respective galleries and collaborated on works. Campbell supplied his characteristic text or signage, Bush settings or scenery.

Jon Campbell/Stephen Bush - ‘Gone To See A Man About A Dog’ (2020) 150 X 149cm  acrylic and oil on canvas [NOT IN SHOW]

The idea was simply to break up senior career routine. However, in opening up his work to another in this way, to a different gallery situation, Bush would seem to have grown curious about other parameters to his work, to his attitude and methods. His show at Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney (2020) was mischievously titled ‘From The Rubber Room’ - an allusion to padded cells and enforced detention for errant teachers in New York City. Bush has previously been a lecturer at the VCA. And in retrospect, the sense of release is palpable.  While the work covers the usual bases, it is also notable for the inclusion of soft-porn couples. These are striking not because of sexually explicit content but for the fact that female figures are extremely rare anywhere in his work. When not deserted landscapes, works feature men in tasks of industry, recreation or supervision, often in mock heroic poses and costume. Females are at best represented by a heavy uddered nanny-goat. Already this expansion undermines a central theme to the work.

'Taaienberg’ (2018) 44.5 X 50 cm oil and enamel on canvas [NOT IN SHOW]

In another small work, a former South Melbourne landmark, the Laconia building, adds a surprisingly localised touch to what is generally a globalised world view.  

‘Kongshaugen’ (2020) 38.5 X 38.5 cm oil on canvas [NOT IN SHOW]

With ‘A Troubled Mind’, these changes find male figures predominantly engaged in carousing, celebration and relieving themselves in public. This last, possibly ‘taking the piss’ out of the scrutinising critic. 

‘Dark Nasturtium Yellow’ (2021) 95.5 X 95.5 cm oil and enamel on canvas

Female figures are again conspicuous by their absence, and the nanny-goat sees service in various foregrounds, now accompanied by a rooster.

In general, the low or domestic genre of seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish painting offer a powerful model for the artist of the art market for vice – for gluttony, excess, degradation and sloth, vices all too prevalent in the present world order. Many Flemish titles to works throughout his career offer more indirect association with place, time and event. The 2016 review noted an abiding anxiety with role for male figures, a displacement or isolation and the frequent use of self-portraits. In the present show a work such as ‘Horse Cabbage Heart’ (2022) offers a new, older self portrait as simply an inset head, mouth crammed with three pipes, another gesture of excess, another guise. 

‘Horse Cabbage Heart’ (2022) 72.5 X 82.5 cm oil on canvas

The most surprising change is unquestionably the adoption of doors, probably with a wood-grain laminate, as a conspicuous painting support. Interestingly, these free the composition of greater unity or continuity and give matters a much more provisional and spontaneous feel, quite the reverse of the coloured pencil drawings.

‘Leberg’ (2021) 165 X 209 cm oil and enamel on plywood panels

Yet just why the artist should adopt these supports at this point is unclear. His answer is that he had them in his possession and simply took advantage of opportunity. But while true, one suspects there is more to it than that. Earlier work often proceeded from a free pouring of enamels – unpredictable marbling and suggestive shapes. The work took advantage or built upon such accidents to slowly cultivate a wilderness landscape, often in an alpine region. The work began with paint at its freest or most liquid and ended with something more solid and civilised, as paint and picture. The mountain peaks have gradually dropped out of the repertoire, ‘peaking’ around 2014 and while poured enamels persist, they no longer have quite the central or foundational role.

‘Kapelmuur’ (2021) 177 X 209 cm oil and enamel on plywood panels

It is this role as a foundation or starting point for a vision of painting and the world that doors now fulfil. It may seem a peculiar substitute but much depends on how the artist came by the doors, their history or relevance for him. They are his foundation at a new and more personal level, at one step further back in the process. Obviously, they do not suggest shapes or places, as pourings once did, but those kind of suggestions are no longer necessary. A long record of prior convictions now steers that agenda. This should be taken in combination with shifts to more localised subject matter, less heroic figures, and most importantly, lower landscapes increasingly dominated by architecture or building. Building begets building, possibly.

 As mentioned, there is a trade-off to be negotiated at this stage of the artist’s career – at this stage of post modern dystopia. The artist eases his way towards something more personal, less complete or all-encompassing and finds something more solid upon which to launch his next phase. It is an intriguing prospect.  


Huge thanks to both for help in preparing this review.








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