Artist at home with eroticism

‘‘Female hungry ghost with dragonfly jar’’, 2009, Gouache and Pencil on Paper, 350mm x 500mm....
‘‘Female hungry ghost with dragonfly jar’’, 2009, Gouache and Pencil on Paper, 350mm x 500mm. Image supplied.
Kushana Bush is an interesting local artist. She was born in Dunedin in 1983, the daughter of parents who had migrated from England.

Her father had attended the art school at Winchester but didn't do the degree course because he wasn't happy with the school's focus on minimalist art.

He was a coin collector and had coins emanating from the Kushan or Kushana Empire which had its origins among nomadic people in Bactria, in central Asia, occupying parts of what are now Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

It eventually spread to include the whole of modern Afghanistan and parts of northwest India. From the beginning it was subject to various external cultural influences. It originated in the early Christian era but started to disintegrate in the 4th century.

The artist is named after this civilisation. There were books about art in the artist's home and works which later included shunga, Japanese erotic prints, and what she has termed Indian ‘‘love paintings'', miniatures depicting people making love.

By her adolescence she had first-hand experience of erotic art. She attended Wakari Primary School, Balmacewen Intermediate and Otago Girls' High School.

She has said she remembers practising life drawing alongside her brother after school. Art was was always in her background and when she finished school she entered the Dunedin School of Art. She graduated in 2004.

Early in her time at art school ‘‘there was a dramatic day when a classmate got sent home for painting a huge canvas of an extremely violent sexual image.

''I had read of many artists who had fairly (or often unfairly) had their show shut down, been jailed or were just humiliated for testing the boundaries, but seeing someone in front of you so swiftly exiled really scared me.

It certainly made me realise that art (and especially ‘erotic' art) has a very unique power''.

She mentioned the Japanese prints and Indian miniature ‘‘love paintings'' she had grown up with at home ‘‘so I was very familiar with examples of erotic art that were dangerous but ‘acceptable' forms of art''.

Her experience at the art school led her to look more closely at how the eastern artists ‘‘had got away with it''.

‘‘Both shunga and erotic Indian miniatures employ traps such as beautiful decorative patterns, exquisite detail, flattened perspective (and therefore a removal from the real world) and crucially small scale. At first, I attempted to achieve the same effects in acrylic.

''My lecturer Lyn Plummer gave me a video tape to watch of Indian miniaturists working in the painstaking method of gouache on paper, a medium that produces fine lines and rich detail. I was hooked on the miniature method from then on.''

She makes crowd compositions by working them out in advance on layers of tracing paper, because as has been observed, gouache is an unforgiving medium.

‘‘There's no edit - no undo,'' she has said.

She started working as a full-time artist in 2009 and in Dunedin often shows at the Brett McDowell Gallery in Dowling Street. (Mr McDowell assisted me in making contact with Ms Bush to discuss her art.) Initially, all or at least most of her exhibited works were erotic.

They are not large but are not really miniatures. They are very delicately painted in a predominantly muted palette, although the carpets, lutes and other trappings intended to quiet anxiety about their eroticism are often, not only intricately patterned but painted in intense hues.

The images' origins in shunga and Indian and Persian erotic miniatures are fairly apparent. They are frequently explicit with male and female genitals on display but they have an indubitable charm and couldn't be described as vulgar.

There is nothing else like them in New Zealand art. Ms Bush's achievement is remarkable.

Her work has been well-received critically both in New Zealand and overseas. In 2011 she was the Frances Hodgkins Fellow.

I asked her what she thought the nature and purpose of erotic art was, or at least hers. She had quite a lot to say, not a little of it illuminating.

Among other things she said: ‘‘I hoped when I was making the erotic works. that they would function as more than just titillation. Of course it didn't go unnoticed that a lot of my paintings once sold were hung in the privacy of bedrooms!

''I guess there is always a little gap (or chasm) between the artist's intentions and the audience's reaction. In the 2011 ‘Tender' paintings, I intended to paint a physical closeness contrasted by an emotional distance. To me they convey a banality of the erotic.''

Ms Bush last painted erotic works in 2011 for an exhibition at the City Gallery in Wellington. She then turned her attention to the Italian primitives and drapery and latterly other things.

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery will hold an exhibition of her work in November.

● Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.

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