Kushana Bush’s eccentric group studies, typically in gouache, are a nice fit for the Pah Homestead, a restored late 19th-century “gentleman’s residence” in the Auckland suburb of Hillsborough, owned by Auckland Council and, since August 2010, home to the equally idiosyncratic private collection of the Wallace Arts Trust. Bush’s “All Things To All Men,” her first solo show in a public gallery, occupied all but one of the downstairs exhibition spaces, including the Drawing Room, Morning Room and Ballroom. The Homestead’s opulent fireplaces, chandeliers and bay windows have been a challenge for many contemporary shows, but were a perfect foil for Bush’s understated scenes of strange rituals.
In her earlier series, such as “Pimp Squeaks” (2010), Bush depicted figures engaged in perplexingly ambiguous activities, moving together in tightly arranged groups with apparent purpose but no obvious function. Exotic fabrics and features suggested cultural references but the specifics remained elusive. In those works, flattened perspectives and soft colors complicate the tangles of layered limbs; sitting somewhere between the karma sutra and gymnastic sports. Not to mention the recurring genitalia and obsessively detailed body hair.
The 31 new works in “All Things To All Men,” all in the artist’s distinctive delicate gouache washes with pencil detailing, were produced during her 2011 Frances Hodgkins Fellowship residency in Dunedin, overseen by the University of Otago’s Hocken Collections, where the exhibition had its first showing in February earlier this year. These new configurations seem looser, even boisterous; more of a throng than a choreographed assembly, populated with a variety of icons and cranks. Her figures squabble, grab, grope, jeer and swoon, clothed (or partially clothed) in flowing robes and secular footwear.
In one less-populated scene, a limp male figure in a loincloth is draped across the lap of another male in flowing blue robes decorated with a repeated bird motif. A floral vase sits to one side while a juice packet and dustpan are near the figures’ sneakered feet. Titled Pieta (2011), it typifies Bush’s whimsical blend of sacred and profane, and a growing complexity of layered references to art history, religious themes and cultural exchange. In Adoration of the Lucy Ries’ (2011), a group in sandals and socks grasp at pots by the renowned British ceramicist. It pays homage to Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi (1305) via Stanley Spencer’s Adoration of Old Men (1937). The characters depicted might be curators unpacking works, or competing collectors at a jumble sale—one is naked and nearly being impaled by a long-necked vase. Bush’s series also pictures a proliferation of Willow-patterned porcelain, now a staple of English antique ceramics, originally adapted from Orientalist collectables.
Another echo of Spencer’s heavenly depictions based on ordinary village life is a work titled Nude with Rubbish Sack (2011), in which Bush lends the most mundane of scene a spiritual (or sexual) dimension. As Natalie Poland suggests in her catalogue essay, Bush’s cosmopolitan blend of cultural and temporal hybridity proposes a transnational diversity liberated by the imagination. This bringing together of disparate ideas into shifting relationships between exotic and everyday creates the dynamic environment we consider as home, as a fluid identity rather than a fixed location. This is fuelled in part by Bush having grown up in Dunedin surrounded by her English parents’ collections of Japanese prints, African dolls and erotic Indian miniatures. Her Hodgkins fellowship was preceded by travels to see biblical scenes by Giotto in Italy, Indo-Persian miniatures in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and a two month residency in Korea, where her exploration of museum objects was particularly unhindered by official descriptions and definitions due to a lack of English-language museum labels.
Exhibited in an elaborate “homestead,” Bush’s exhibition is also reminiscent of Francis Upritchard’s project for the 2009 Venice Biennale where crudely modeled mystics and hippies suggested the doomed earnestness of an ill-fated cult, set in a faded palazzo. Although often sharing a similar goofy pathos, Bush’s figures are less cosmic, owing more to Spencer than Bosch. They seem more threatened by the fate of untied shoelaces or upturned pottery to allow Armageddon to upset the intimate reverie of such shared domestic rites as gardening and bath time.
In November, “All Things To All Men” will travel to another historic building, the Rotorua Museum of Art and History.