New York

Stephen Bush

Goff + Rosenthal

Imagine a monastic hut from a Sung dynasty scroll transplanted onto a slab of molten lime bubble gum with a pea soup base, a riotous aurora borealis behind, and a magenta abyss in front. What was quiet and meditative becomes shrieking and ominous, the sublime depiction of majestic topography twisted into garish chemical goo. In the blackness beyond the hut’s open doorway might lurk a psychopath, a monster, a vengeful ghost—or only the darkest projections of one’s own unconscious.

Stephen Bush’s new landscape paintings are a luridly unorthodox contribution to the genre, but they nonetheless share one of its central themes: nature as an expression of the psyche. The canvases in his recent show (all works 2005) invert both Eastern visions of spiritual sanctuary and Western fantasies of manifest destiny. Half-hidden by whorls and ribbons of pooled, poured, streaked, and scraped orange, green, purple, and pink paint, wrinkled mountains extend into the distance, symbols of ascent, ambition, and possibility. Before a hovering ledge of solid earth, the foreground dissolves into a miasma of bright gases, a void matching the sky’s depth and countering its aspirational connotations.

Such feverish, virtuosic monumentality is brought up short by humble, queasy green structures (huts, a rustic bridge), rendered with the flat precision of a fairy-tale illustration, that stake out patches of human territory. The windowless cabins feel more Unabomber than Chinese monk, not symbols of contemplative consciousness but rude hideaways for the asocial. Bush turns some of the landscape genre’s central terms inside out: Rather than a mind calmed by the natural environment, these paintings record the external manifestation of psychological trauma. The relation of human to nature loses its spirituality, its sublime profundity. These landscapes evoke not awe but alienation; they are spoiled.

Bush’s bright canvases suck you into the depths of this nightmare, right through the sheen of their licked surfaces, but then spit you back out again, offering no haven, no air. This withdrawn invitation, an echo of the dual movement of desire—outward to the other, back into the now mediated self—completes Bush’s portrait of a subject tormented by a spectacular but bankrupt unconscious, trapped in a stunted relation to a poisoned landscape, and thwarted in the necessary act of self-realization.

If Bush’s juxtaposition of abstract and figurative elements, of human and natural, is reminiscent of the Chinese landscape tradition, his project reflects not only a new subject—a psyche whose internal decay is echoed in the ruined environment—but also the inversion of a tradition that is necessarily seen from the West as the Other. In earlier work, Bush has focused on the postcolonial subject, painting pictures of Babar the French-adopted African elephant, or dressing in nineteenth-century garb for his own photograph-based paintings. Here, by (intentionally or not) borrowing and dismantling an inaccessible, unassailable—hence radically authoritative—form of holistic depiction, Bush foregrounds our assumptions of the Other’s superior intactness, as well as of our own decrepitude, deftly stripping a persistent cultural dichotomy of its given value.

Nell McClister