Jack Bush in Edmonton Collections

 

Shortly before his death in 1977, Jack Bush visited Edmonton. The occasion was the opening here of his retrospective exhibition, a travelling show organized by Terry Fenton for the Art Gallery of Ontario. By this time, Bush had achieved the secure status of senior Canadian artist, and to many it was finally becoming apparent that his art was of more than purely national importance. Over a period of a few days, Bush visited artists' studios and socialized, generously sharing his time with artists and art lovers alike. What impressed everyone was that he didn't act like an "important" artist. Bush was down‑to‑earth and friendly, and the attractive naturalness that was so much a part of his manner seemed somehow to imbue his comments and opinions with an added dimension of authenticity. Whether or not his opinions were always right (here I'm inclined to say his track record may have been pretty good – Bush had a way of looking at things in a clearheaded manner that got to the core of the issue), it was obvious that he expressed himself from the heart.

 

Some of his manner as a person carried over to his art. His paintings display the same direct, seemingly artless candor that characterized his conversation, with a similar uncluttered emphasis on essentials. Looked at in terms of artmaking style, they express a very personal, very down‑to‑earth conception. It's a conception that is couched in a visual vocabulary that seems to have evolved more from the artist's personal experience than from a shared or inherited experience of contemporary artmaking practice. Partly because of this quality, his art is hard to situate within the stylistic mainstream of Twentieth Century modernist art.

Terry Fenton has pointed out that Bush's art evolved at a distance from the main thrust of contemporary abstraction and wasn't influenced by cubist design in the same way that New York‑style abstract art was. Bush's early development as an artist was affected more by his familiarity with the work of the Group of Seven and, more generally, by late nineteenth‑century modernism as evidenced in the work of, say, Gauguin and to a lesser extent Van Gogh. And, of course, by Matisse. Like these artists, Bush thought in terms of flat design, especially in his earlier paintings which are generally built around simple interlocking areas of solid colour bounded by curving contours. Later he moved away from the flat design format in which the colours sat side by side on the picture surface, shifting instead to figure‑ground arrangements of colour shapes set on top of rhythmically stroked or brushed grounds. Throughout, though, he continued to draw expressive effect from eccentric drawing, often employing – as Terry Fenton points out – s-curves and swirls that harkened back to the art nouveau arabesque.

 

This is really where he diverged from his American peers who were more inclined to orient their designs in relation to the picture rectangle. It came out of their method of applying an allover or equal distribution of visual weight to the picture surface by thinking of the design in terms of regular units arranged on an imaginary grid – an echo of cubist pictorial organization. Bush occasionally made "squared off" pictures, for example the "fringe" paintings of the late 60's, but his natural inclination was to make line participate as a more active component of the design. Sometimes this may have only amounted to a slight curve in the bounding edge of the stack of colours (as in Sea Deep, 1965, Montreal Museum of Fine Art, reproduced above).

Bush's was an image‑based art, for the most part, and this too separated him from his contemporaries. He used these simplified "images", often suggested by objects and natural forms from the real world, as layouts ‑‑ structural scaffolding, really, for his colour invention. (His experience as a commercial artist may have come into play here; his layouts often had the emphatic, declarative impact and simplicity of design logos.) There is an interesting connection that can be drawn between Bush's transformation of imagery into flat design and the way that the Pop artists turned everyday objects into cartoon‑like, one‑dimensional symbols. This is especially apparent in some of Bush's paintings from the early sixties that were inspired by the splatters and blobs of abstract expressionist paintings. But Bush's treatment was devoid of the associations and humorously cynical attitude that was so central to Pop Art. He took the dead‑pan visual punch of the device and ignored or suppressed any of the references that would undermine the main effect which, as he intended, was a purely visual one. This total focusing on visual versus associative effect was, incidentally, one thing that he did share with his mainstream abstractionist peers.

 

Just as it's not too easy to see the connections between Jack Bush's art and the art that went immediately before it – and was going on around it – it’s difficult to gauge how his achievement has affected the art that has come since. Bush's artistic personality was so distinctive and his artistic means so completely turned to the ends to which they were put that his innovation hasn't been easily adapted to anyone else's art. Today it's virtually impossible to make colour painting, and especially figure‑ground colour painting, without bumping into Jack Bush. It's almost as if he owns the genre. But if Bush is a dominating presence in the world of twentieth century art, it's not because his art was so personal. It's because it was so good. Bush once said that he wanted to "beat Matisse", and part of the measure of his success is that he wasn't afraid of being compared to Matisse – or even of looking a bit like Matisse – and in the process carved out something completely his own.

 

Russell Bingham