January 25, 2007


Robert Kushner: Wild Gardens. Essays by Michael Duncan and Robert Kushner. Pomegranate. $35.

     The notion of palimpsest is an old one in art and manuscripts: materials are scarce and expensive, so you take old, unwanted documents or works of art, wash or scrape off the writing or paint on them, and reuse the underlying parchment or canvas.  There have been some wonderful finds because of this technique, as modern technology has made it possible to see the imperfectly erased works beneath the new ones.  Now artist Robert Kushner has taken palimpsests to a new level, by using discarded Japanese screens and doors as his medium and making oil and acrylic floral paintings, often with gold leaf and glitter, on top of these “found objects.”  What is new here is, first of all, the fact that Kushner does not attempt to supplant the pictures and grain of the discards, but incorporates them into his own creations; and second of all, that Kushner utilizes chance in some of his work with the discards, much as composers of aleatoric music or followers of John Cage used chance in their aural creations.

     It is possible to overanalyze what Kushner does – indeed, his own essay on working methods and technical restoration issues may take away some of the magic of his creations, at least for some readers.  Happily, though, the vast majority of this book is not discussion but pictures, some showing Kushner at work but most displaying the work itself.  Kushner, who has “taken on the mantle of Matisse,” as Michael Duncan says in his introductory essay, has created a marvelous world of nature and beauty on the discards he uses as his medium, with pictures that partake of the Japanese sensibility inherent in the screens and doors themselves while still bringing Kushner’s own unique artistic sense to bear.

     Thus, “Camellias, 2003” appears on a two-page spread as a study in browns, its flowers outlined in white or pink, their prominent stamens a delicate yellow, but the overall impression of “brownness” communicated not only by the wooden Japanese screen on which Kushner has worked but also through his use of brown for some petals and no color for others, allowing the brown of the screen itself to form the petals.

     Gold is a dominant color in many of these works.  “Summer Scatter, 2003,” another two-page spread on another Japanese screen, uses oil, acrylic, glitter and gold leaf to construct the delicate branches and beautifully shaped flowers characteristic of much Japanese art – but the primary impression is of the gold of the screen itself.  “Mirror in Gold, 2002,” leaves the gold panel on which Kushner paints plain at the center, just as if it is a mirror, surrounding that central area with black, white, yellow and delicate pink flowers and floral outlines.

     Kushner’s sensitive use of color is what makes so much of this art so striking.  For example, Japanese doors become the dark green, mottled background for “Moonlight, 2003,” with the moon itself a huge golden ball above reeds; and doors are also the background for “Tulip Accumulation, 2004,” where the tulips look like photographic negatives, their petals black but outlined in the oranges, yellows, reds and pinks that, in everyday life, would be the petals’ own colors.  Kushner’s work is lovely to look at and, although clearly influenced by the Japanese objects on which it is created, partakes as well of Western sensibilities and of Kushner’s own vision.  The fine production quality of Robert Kushner: Wild Gardens makes it a special pleasure to explore Kushner’s flora with him.

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