Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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

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