Under the Spell of the Image
Kushana Bush, David Kettner and Susan Te Kahurangi King
The Approach, London
On until 4th August 2019 (FREE)
On a light and airy first floor of an East End pub you will find a highly unexpected collection of artworks united by the personal history of three artists who all chose or were chosen by different modes of exile: drawings have been the only method of communication used by Susan Te Kahurangi King since she was ten years old; David Kettner has been secluded from the world; and Kushana Bush chose remote parts of New Zealand to exercise her freedom to invent. What appears to be a small show proves rich in layers and depth.
Facing the entrance of the exhibition are Kettner’s collages, produced in the last two years. All seven works are made using pages of children’s colouring books. Some pages were indeed coloured - outside the lines - by children, probably without the intention of them ever becoming artworks. The artist doesn’t add any more marks to what he calls the “raw material”, he simply cuts out parts of the pages and uses, frequently, only two pieces to make a collage. His role is, literally, that of a composer - “one who puts together”. The simple acts of cutting, pasting and, in so doing, composing add a lot to those children’s artworks. The weight of a baggage that children cannot carry.
"What appears to be a small show proves rich in layers and depth"
The opposite wall displays nine works by Susan Te Kahurangi King from the early sixties to late eighties. Drawings of Disney characters made when the artist was eleven are gradually transfigured into abstraction in her late 30s. Susan stopped drawing in the early nineties retaking her practice in 2008. An interesting addition to the show would have been King’s more recent works.
The highlight of the exhibition was Bush’s two gouache and watercolour works on paper, The Small Mask and Mad Bull, both made this year. The surreality of the works and the precision with which the wealth of detail is depicted make them seem like digital images even at close inspection. The artist paints as if making a collage, using unrelated objects as inspiration.
The Small Mask depicts a large black woman in a warrior II pose with her hair tied back in a chignon. She holds a wooden fishing rod and wears a small mask that covers only part of her face leaving room for a cigarette in her mouth. She wears a lime-green, chicken-patterned dress and red sandals with her toes folding over the front of the shoe with force. A bumbag is wrapped around her waist over a kimono-like belt with surprising items hanging from it: a pencil, a squid in the shape of an anchor (I am not making this up). She seems to be on a trapeze and riding a horse at the same time. It made me think of those dreams that make perfect sense when you are asleep and no sense at all the moment you wake up. The horse’s legs look agitated trotting in the sea and its one eye - the other is covered by the woman’s dress and foot - looks knackered. There is a cable wrapped around the horse’s neck with an electric plug hanging out. A pair of scissors, one sandal, an oriental vase and a slotted turner can also be found hanging from the cable. On the rocky beach, where all of this takes place, you will find a sand castle, a scared dog, a plastic straw and what looks like an empty shower gel bottle. What looks like unrestrained imagination is bound by the realm of the subliminal which makes finding a narrative in Bush's paintings an almost impossible task. In that respect, she reminds me of Dorothea Tanning’s remarks on her own work: “Just don’t ask me to explain them.”
The show brings to the fore how King, Kettner and Bush's exile from the world has set them free to explore the full potential of their imagination. In the experience of the works the exhibition invites us to be more like children, to allow ourselves not to think, not to rationalise. It dares us to dig deeper.