Stephen Bush, Ficus Elastica (2006) TarraWarra Museum of Art collection. Acquired 2012. On display in Panorama, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria, until May 15. For Stephen Bush it all starts when he opens a new tin of vividly coloured paint, an act he describes as a “special moment”. Once that tin is open, he takes it and pours it all directly on to the canvas.
Not surprisingly, the paint reacts in unforeseen ways. It oozes. It swirls and drips. It forms in viscous pools. It creates a marbling effect. Some critics have even compared it to hallucinogenic, Rorschach-like forms and shapes.
Once the layers of paint are dried, Bush takes up his paintbrush. Using the vibrant abstract surface as his backdrop, he identifies areas where he can paint figurative elements, such as a potbelly stove, a log cabin, a highway. This often disparate figurative imagery adds a surreal narrative component to the picture.
It is evident that Bush revels in paint’s virtu- osity and lurid colours. As he once said in an interview: “It’s a special moment opening a fresh can of fumy, glossy, slinky enamel [paint] … all that possibility. Somewhere within this stew, moments appear.”
Bush, who was born in Colac, Victoria, in 1958, has had a prolific career in Australia and the US. During this time, his painting style and choice of subject matter have been varied. He is known for populating his canvases with recurring characters such as Babar the Elephant, beekeepers and colonial explorers.
One of Bush’s paintings, Ficus Elastica, is on display at TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. The work is in Panorama, an exhibition dedicated to exploring the Australian landscape. Bush’s painting is being shown with work by artists such as Judy Watson, Fred Williams, Brett Whiteley, Imants Tillers and Rosalie Gascoigne.
I’m shown Bush’s painting by curator Anthony Fitzpatrick. Looking at Ficus Elastica, Fitzpatrick and I discuss how it depicts a psychedelic landscape of vibrant high-keyed greens, yellows and pinks that seem to swirl in unexpected combinations. Furthermore, there is the addition of surreal figurative juxtapositions, such as a rubber plant, a rustic stone dwelling and a river flowing through a valley.
Fitzpatrick explains that the painting’s title is the correct name for what is more commonly known as a rubber plant. The title, therefore, refers to the realistic representation of the foliage of a rubber plant in the left foreground of the painting. But it also alludes, he says, to the elasticity, the changing surface of the painting and to Bush’s adaptability as an artist.
Fitzpatrick says the painting is good example of the artist’s current work. He notes how Bush has always liked to play with elements of abstraction and figuration and that this is clearly evident in Ficus Elastica.
“It is like a surrealist technique to bring out imagery from a chance operation,” Fitzpatrick says. “There are elements of the sublime, with mountain vistas and the romantic notion of landscape, but Bush also introduces surrealist and abstract elements into that mix. His imagery in a sense emerges out of chaos, and I think a sense of that excitement and of that unknown, and the mysterious element of that process, is what gives the painting its charge and impact. The painting also highlights Bush’s adaptability as an artist who adeptly balances the tension between chaos and order, the irrational and reason, chance and control and abstraction and representation.”
Oil and enamel on canvas, 198cm x 274cm