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Gelderland, Australian artist Stephen Bush’s recent exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, revealed him to be someone who both embraces and perverts the academic training he received at the Royal Melbourne Institute in the 1970s. Simply put, Bush’s work examines the absurdity of rehearsing those academic conventions in the early twenty-first century on a continent straddling the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Bush’s postcolonial self-awareness is itself simultaneously romanticized and pathologized in the ongoing project in which he has been engaged since the early 1990s, specifically, his serial painting of an image titled The Lure of Paris. Inspired by a stuffed Babar toy that he found on the street, Bush depicts, in shades of black and white, three melancholic Babar clones making their way down onto a rocky shoreline, and staring out to sea. In the original children’s story from 1931, Histoire de Babar by Jean de Brunhoff, Babar is a young, orphaned elephant who journeys to Paris and then returns to Africa (dressed in a suit) to “civilize” and rule over his fellow elephants. In Bush’s Lure of Paris paintings the suited, stuffed elephants staring (we can guess) toward Europe or at the very least toward elsewhere are, among other things, stand-ins for the artist himself, whose own conflicted relationship to European culture is demonstrated here through his colorless rendering of a classic academic seascape, complete with foamy sea, becalmed sky, and sun breaking through the clouds. With this landscape, Bush rehearses his academic, European-derived training, producing a landscape that is reminiscent of Claude Lorrain’s idyllic scenes of disembarkation. However by rendering the scene in black and white, he eliminates all affect and expression and seems to reinforce the conclusion that, in this case, Bush’s elephants aren’t going anywhere, and neither is he.
Rather than move forward or head off to conquer new territory, Bush has turned around and re-painted this same scene of these same three stuffed elephants twenty-nine times, on each occasion working only from memory and attempting, he insists, not to copy previous iterations but to somehow repeat the original act. Small differences appear from painting to painting, but this is hardly the point. In painting this image over and over again, Bush repeats a gesture akin to that of the elephants who, we can imagine, tramp down to the shoreline every so often to dream of a Paris that is wholly foreign to them, but which has nonetheless become a part of their identity. At SITE, five Lure paintings are shown in the same large gallery, and the effect is to monumentalize Bush’s own act of repetition compulsion, which is no more or less than a performance of one aspect of his own postcolonial identity.
Alienated figures in a “romantic” landscape evacuated of all affect also populate four paintings from the Caretaker Series from the late 1980s, a key group of early works that are presented in one of the smaller galleries at SITE. In these, Bush appropriates the style not of French academic painting but of the American Hudson River School. Bush was partly inspired by a trip to the United States, as well as by his own acute awareness of similarities between Australian and American romantic notions of the landscape, frontier, and wilderness. The Caretaker Series represents amateurishly rendered takes on some of the canonical images of the American landscape, including such clichés as stormy skies and broken tree trunks in scenes often reminiscent of Thomas Cole’s Catskill paintings. However in place of the yeoman farmers, fur traders, “noble savages,” and landscape painters who typically populate such scenes, Bush’s landscapes include fully suited beekeepers. These shrouded figures are at once eerie, absurd, and heroic. In A Caretaker #1 (1988), Bush reproduces the landscape from George Caleb Bingham’s The Trapper’s Return (1851)—a work closely related to Bingham’s iconic Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)—in blurred sepia tones. The result is a version of Bingham’s second version of the subject made suitably bereft of romantic or sensual beauty. Bush’s rendering evokes a bad photocopy of a poor scan of the original painting rather than the lazy rivers and luminous skies Bingham offers. In the Caretaker paintings, landscape is not a vehicle for transformative subjective experience; the overwhelming effect is instead one of detachment, since the figures are hermetically sealed off from the landscape around them by their bulky suits and absorbing work.
More recently, Bush has taken the beekeeper imagery beyond the restrained art-historical references of the Caretaker Series. In Vert Veronese (2003) a mint-green beekeeper bends over his charges, carefully smoking the hive while standing amid what looks like a swirling sea of green dry ice; the sky above explodes in washes of hot pink, unnoticed by the figure at work.
Bush’s newer Cabin Series (2003–present) features landscapes with one or several architectural structures located within similarly psychedelic pours of hot pink and green (a favored palette.) In these works, three of which were exhibited at SITE, the architectural elements are as much at odds with their surroundings as the beekeepers or toy elephants in the earlier work are with theirs. Evoking life at the outer edge of the colonized world, these ramshackle, abandoned structures and tidy hermits’ retreats are all but suffocated by lurid swirls of pink and green that form mountains, caverns, and stormy skies. In a few cases, these rustic outposts are juxtaposed with modernist structures that seem equally problematic in relation to their surroundings. In Southeast in Summer (2006) a narrow path bounded by teetering rail fences leading toward a green-and-red cabin is linked to a distant modernist pavilion reminiscent of Eero Saarinen. The cabin itself is in ruins, an abandoned outpost facing out into a vast, unsettled void. In Yanchep (2006) the tiny green cabin is perched on a precipice, surrounded by an explosion of pink mountains and lava floes. Other architectural elements look as if they were borrowed from science fiction, vaguely reminiscent of filmic outposts on Mars or some other even less hospitable world.
The exhibition catalogue is lavishly illustrated, and includes two short essays on Bush’s work, but neither seems to push the issues he pointedly raises. In fact, Bush’s exploration of an architectural imagery of outpost, ruin, and frontier is particularly apt in Santa Fe, a city defined by the layered histories of the many peoples who have colonized the area in successive waves, inevitably coming into conflict with each other. Among these are the Pueblo, the Apache, the Navajo, the Spanish, the “Anglos,” and the current colonizers—a steady stream of affluent or relatively affluent retirees and relocating artists who are displacing the “locals” and erecting dozens of new-yet-rustic, water-hungry, “faux-dobe” mansions in the desert. The collision of architectures both archaic and industrial, nineteenth century and futuristic, that we see in Bush’s Cabin Series seems right at home here.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Ramapo College of New Jersey
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