One might say the journey began in 1979 with Lead Tin Yellow Light with an imitable apricot-coloured caravan. A mobile container for basic shelter that offers more: a portable room, escape dwelling, tentative tenancy. Set against a paling fence with blue hills rising in the distance, the caravan, door window ajar, awaits. Despite the clarity of painted image—the logically defined space, the naturalistic colours—a sense of ambiguousness pervades. The provocation lies within the image itself. With our contemporary eyes, this 1950s-style caravan is resolutely cool. A modernist design relic to acquire for pleasure, rather than a silent acquiescence to a means-tested life.
In Lead Tin Yellow Light Stephen Bush foregrounds his decades-long commitment to representational painting—the figure in the landscape, his lodestar—and nuanced juxtapositions within the canvas that continually test the narrative possibilities of this most passé of mediums. His paintings reflect a synthesis of art historical styles that combine pictorial elements ranging from American Regionalism to Northern European landscape painting to contemporary film, amongst others. And it is this mixing of art historical references with his own personal world that describes the novelty of his work.
Such commitment can sometimes waiver. The mechanics of easel painting can become acts of attrition: the stretching, the multiple primings of the canvas, mark making, pondering, the drying, sanding, drying and sanding again. Within this seemingly endless game of waiting, distractions emerge and immediacy, as a salve for the mind, becomes paramount. In 2021, a box of 120 German pencils and cotton rag paper beckoned. Having worked in the gouache medium in the 1990s, 2016, (and later in 2020 with artist Jon Campbell), Bush recalled the directness and simplicity of those works. The “liberation” from painting—its terms and procedures—allowed Bush to contemplate image-making in a more direct way even if its contents remained stubbornly equivocal. After all, what’s to be made of piles of charcuterie, abandoned ice cream vans, farm animals and idyllic lake views? Amidst such disparate displays, ideas emerge. Historically, the technique of collage allowed distinct items from discordant realities to come together in a single image. In this way, charcuterie decorates abandoned ice cream vans. In another way, the excessive food commodity, afforded by the few, contrasts with the dead vans of lives abandoned. Such direct experiments on paper, expand onto plywood doors. In these homemade canvases, replete with hinge markings and handle holes, Bush brandishes the brush again, testing collagist impulses on a grand scale.
And yet, the canvas holds. In between bouts of priming, drying, and sanding, Bush returns to the easel. Scenes of silent streets and empty petrol stations somehow converse easily with canvases filled with riotous colour, staring goats, strutting roosters and distant palaces. Amidst all of this converging imagery, connections form, ambiguity subsides. Art is both a product of our dream state and our lived reality. The artist is just a conduit positing a hopeful reunion between the two.
Select solo exhibitions: From the Rubber Room, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, 2020; Mule Skin, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2018; Festooned, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2016; MCA Foyer Wall Commission, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2016; Whipped Foulard, Michael Reid Gallery, Berlin, 2015; Open the Boxoctosis, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2014; Steenhuffel, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2014; VOLTA Art Fair, New York, 2012; Melbourne Art Fair, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2010; Gelderland, SITE: Santa Fe, 2007; Hoevelaken, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2006; Penetrol, Goff + Rosenthal Gallery, New York, 2005; Blackwood Skyline, Stephen Bush: work in progress #5, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, 2003.
Select group exhibitions: Zombie Eaters, Murray Art Museum, Albury, 2022; Carnivalesque, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2018; Sugar Spin, GOMA, Brisbane, 2017; Panorama, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healsville, 2016; Hiding in Plain Sight: A Selection of Works from The Michael Buxton Collection, Bendigo Art Gallery, Bendigo, 2015; In Your Dreams, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne, 2014; Mix Tape 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2013; Negotiating This World: Contemporary Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2012; Marie Celeste, Artspace, Connecticut, 2011; Contemporary Encounters, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2010.Artist’s profile