The Vizard Foundation
Art Collection of the 1990s
Australian Art and Artists from the Decade

Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush's paintings raise a number of issues pertinent to the role of painting in Australian contemporary art. Two of the fundamental concerns of his work are the use of painting to represent a theatre of national identity, and the subject of style and its role within a commercial and academic contemporary art system.

Although he is more inclined to an illusionistic style than most of his contemporaries, Bush is less concerned with representing nature as he is with representation's conventions. His paintings are not so much a representation of nature as they are a representation of the conventions of painting.

The subjects of Stephen Bush's paintings—agricultural machinery and produce, explorers, people in elephant costumes enacting strange rituals in sublime landscapes, Babar on the rocks before a turbulent sea—endow his paintings with a mysterious quality. In Bush's series The lure of Paris (1994–), Babar, the French colonialist elephant character, was placed within a setting based on nineteenth-century Romantic landscape. The subject of Babar sheds some light on Problematising the trace (1994). In this painting, also set in a nineteenth-century Romantic landscape, elephants appear to be people in ill-fitting, unconvincing costumes. This suggests that the nineteenth-century painting of sublime landscapes and colonial conquests was as much a theatrical project as a documentary one. It ridicules colonialist posturing and emphasises the role of art in creating and perpetuating its myth.

Bush has also directly represented explorers in the style of the nineteenth-century American Romantic landscape. In his 1991 exhibition, Claiming. An installation of paintings by Stephen Bush, he painted explorers in nineteenth-century garb traipsing across uncharted territories, making grand, heroic and faintly ridiculous gestures of entitlement. Each of the men, and there were often several in each painting, featured the face of Stephen Bush himself, bearing an expression of Monty Pythonesque seriousness.

Bush uses the Romantic style to critique both colonialism and the power of art and particular styles to generate and perpetuate colonialist myths. He conducts exercises in originality and repetition which address the way in which the academic and commercial consumption of art generally demands that in order to achieve success, an artist needs an identifiable signature style. The artist also needs to create a body of work, which raises stylistic and intellectual issues that locate Bush’s work in both contemporary theoretical and art historical discourses. The artist also needs to produce sufficient number of works with enough diversity to create a sense of relative value in the commercial art system.

Bush's strategy is to subvert this system by fulfilling it to excess. He creates works in which style is the content. He has done this by appropriating a style that has in effect become his signature and then continually repeats it, not as a study of the object he is painting but as a study of what happens to style when it is reproduced under various conditions.

The Lure of Paris series, for example, consisted of one image repeatedly painted from memory. This exercise 'made a fetish of certain aspects of authorship—conception, memory and technical facility'.1 It also made the point that style is the linchpin of repetition; unless the artist comes up with another strategy, this is entirely necessary for them to be able to create work that will succeed in the commercial and academic art system.

Bush's position on style is a sceptical one; but he has ultimately created a body of work that has functioned within the system it critiques, which is typical of contemporary Australian art practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Although his sensibility would probably never allow a completely uncritical, unselfconscious use of any style, the other side to his work—the post-colonial, mock-history paintings—suggest that while he can reduce style to a mere expediency, he also has a level of awe and respect for its persuasive power.

- Lara Travis

  1. C McAuliffe, 'Stephen Bush: producing the goods', Art + Text, no. 53, 1996, p. 56.

Stephen Bush is represented in Australia by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.