An all-consuming passion

Kushana Bush at work in her Dunedin studio. Photo supplied.
Kushana Bush at work in her Dunedin studio. Photo supplied.
Bush begins by drawing on tracing paper, which litters the floor in her studio. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Bush begins by drawing on tracing paper, which litters the floor in her studio. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Bush works in mostly gouache and pencil on paper, as seen in Man on Fire. Photo from Private Collection, Wellington.
Bush works in mostly gouache and pencil on paper, as seen in Man on Fire. Photo from Private Collection, Wellington.
Bush’s works show minute details, such as in Shamsa. Photo from the collection of the artist.
Bush’s works show minute details, such as in Shamsa. Photo from the collection of the artist.
Her work Us Lucky Observers has been purchased by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Photo from the collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Her work Us Lucky Observers has been purchased by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Photo from the collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Seeing her latest works framed and hanging in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s storage facility, Kushana Bush shows the first glimpses of excitment. She tells Rebecca Fox about her first major solo public gallery exhibition.

Dunedin artist Kushana Bush is so focused on the finish line, finding the words to describe her latest works does not come easily.

''It is really difficult to switch from visual brain to verbal brain. They are really different things,'' she says on a rare day off from painting prior to her exhibition ''The Burning Hours'', which opens tomorrow.

Bush has been locked away in her Stafford St studio working solidly on finishing her works for the exhibition, so has found getting excited about the exhibition and book difficult unless she thinks about returning to the real world of swims at the St Clair Hot Salt Water Pool, walks in the Dunedin Botanic Garden - the ''regular'' things she has given up.

''Some of the work has progressed so slowly. I started some work over a year ago and am still trying to finish it now.

''It's slow motion, frustratingly so. There is nothing sudden about what I do.''

Bush, whose first name comes from the ancient southern Asian Kushan Empire, works on her own with only the radio for company, but only when she is painting, not when she is doing her preliminary drawings.

''There are three doors to get through [to her studio] which I like and there is no telephone, no internet, as [my work] requires so much concentration. I resent any interruptions.''

The Burning Hours, by Kushana Bush.
The Burning Hours, by Kushana Bush.

Those drawings, on tracing paper, cover her studio floor and enable her to lay one on top of another to work out the composition of her detailed drawings. The final composition is then transferred to paper.

''They are works on paper. Some will call them drawings, but I use a paint brush, so to me they're paintings.''

She uses gouache to create the detail in her works which means she cannot go back once she's started.

''They're similar to watercolours in that sense. It is staining paper so there is no way to pull back.''

While she describes her works as ''gouache miniatures'' many of her works are anything but small. There are three large works in the show that are 1.5m wide.

''They're all-consuming. It's an endurance act in its own way.''

Bush completed a bachelor of arts in painting at Dunedin School of Art in 2004. She has seen developments in her work, which all start with the influence from a historic art work or image, since completing her Frances Hodgkin's Fellowship project in 2011.

Her new works use all of the paper and include architectural and landscape features.

''The images no longer float in space. I've given them context and environment.''

That development came from a visit to the United Kingdom to exhibit 12 paintings as part of the Edinburgh Arts Festival and a visit to the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, where she saw a collection of miniatures from across the world.

''What they all had in common was how exquisite they were. Their jewel-like intensity I admired and hoped to recreate in this exhibition.

''I'm sad we do not have a miniature tradition here in New Zealand.''

So while her works are not ''minature'' in the truest sense, she sees them as a contemporary take on all things in art history she admired in terms of style.

''It does feel like a big step in the development of my work.''

There is also the feeling that in modern life there is a lack of community and family rituals.

''I think there is this feeling of isolation and longing for community.''

Her own experiences are reflected as well with influences from Dunedin life, such as the Midwinter Carnival. Bush descibed the works as ''cluttered, chaotic and tumultuous''.

Another development in her work is the subtle use of gold leaf - echoing the gold used in the Chester Beatty miniatures - to illuminate the subject.

''The thing about gold is its celestial light. When I was looking down into the cabinets at Chester Beatty it was my non-religious version of worship.

''It did something to me. I can only describe it as some sort of spiritual experience.''

Those miniatures had been created by teams of artisans so she discovered she was slightly naive to think she could create some of those effects on her own.

''To give the attention every work needed I had to renounce the normal trappings of modern life.''

But with National Radio playing in the background she could not escape the outside world completely.

''It's an interesting time to be making art - the world is an ever busy place.

''There are a lot of angry mobs in the work. Listening to the radio in a secluded environment, listening to what is happening in the world, is where some of the work is born.''

She had found herself becoming too affected by some of what she heard and had to tell herself to step back a bit.

''In New Zealand we are often observers of world events, so there is this strange disconnect. That disconnect in part drives the content of my work.

''Sometimes a painting gets too hot and I've had to put it away, not knowing how I felt about it. Then it cools off as other things happen.''

So when she went back to the work it was more benign and ''reverted back to beauty rather than being filled with anxiety''.

As well as unveiling some of her bigger art works for the first time, a hard cover catalogue of the exhibition has been published and will be launched tomorrow night.

The book is very special to her as she has a passion for art books, often surrounding herself with them and poring over them looking for inspiration.

In it, Art Gallery New South Wales head curator of international art Justin Paton says not since

Bill Hammond revealed his Buller paintings in the early 1990s has a

New Zealand artist ''delivered a world so fully and idiosyncratically imagined''.

''If a medieval manuscript painter were crossed with a Mughal miniaturist, apprenticed to Utamaro in 18th-century Japan and Stanley Spencer in 20th-century England, exposed to at length the visionary paintings of Rita Angus and Jeffrey Harris, then dropped into the city of Dunedin, what would their art look like?

''This is not a question that anyone thought to ask before Kushana Bush began making her paintings.''

He described her large new works as ''something else''.

Kushana was looking forward to seeing the works hanging in the exhibition space ''without me being worried about trying to complete them''.

''I'll become a viewer. When I'm in the studio I'm still a participant. It'll be the first time I'll get to see them fresh without working up this close.

''It's also exciting to imagine people looking at the works and getting a taste of the Chester Beatty experience in Dunedin.''

To see

‘‘The Burning Hours’’, Kushana Bush, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, opens on December 3. Bush and curator Lauren Gutsell exhibition tour, December 3, 3pm.

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