In 2004, Robert Kushner wrote, “Don’t carrot sticks look more inviting when framed by a nipple? And what about a glimpse of hair behind the mesh of a hotdog apron?” Nowadays, food seems to have lost its eroticized quality, with dining relegated to a sterile void while fingering long-stemmed wine glasses amid candlelight is ancient history. Yes, cold, bagged baby carrots are devoid of sensuality, even if they are organic. But there was a time when Kushner tried blending food and sensual pleasure together. In 1972, Kushner created costumes that hung like sides of beef on gallery walls before having models come out and dress. “The biggest surprise,” wrote Kushner, “was the shock of placing a thoroughly-chilled ensemble over my nude torso.” After a parade of fashion and culinary narration, the performers turned to eating. In what sounds like an orgiastic performance; suckling the fibrous filaments of a fellow string bean cummerbund is perhaps a shocking exaltation of the private as public — or public as private.
Kushner’s career — from an animate Bacchus to the decorative gilded artichoke in Artichoke Apotheosis (1995), to August Wildflower Convocation (2010) at Bellas Artes in Santa Fe, N.M. — reads like an ensemble of still lifes (or permutations of fiber). The clusters of cornucopia from the days of yore, full of fruits and flowers, were beautiful because they were short-lived, just like performance art. August Wildflower Convocation presents a 72-by-72-inch canvas loaded with lush, feral botany sprung from the center of some watery blue surface. Kushner’s painting imparts an elegant rusticity, where the viewer is thrust into Arkadia worshipping the sultry and animalic Pan. The still life is as pleasurable as ever in August Wildflower Convocation with its deep, maritime blue and washed white that feels moist and fluid. A sprinkling of actual plant matter is hidden beneath the paint and the little bits of roughness are a whispering of mythos that litters an otherwise earthen surface. Kushner paints a tangled array of colors and shapes shooting up vertically. The image is a meeting of wildflowers that celebrates them as if flowers weren’t allowed to be wild. They parade like a Victorian tomboy, appealing and deliciously unruly.
In Kushner’s consistent tango with the feminine, he crocheted with his mother, called upon serious menu planning and preparation skills normally suited for large dinner parties for his performance art, and invoked flower arranging to prioritize the hearty and delicate foods for his sartorial endeavors. He was a founder of the Pattern and Decoration movement and his current work looks delicately nurtured by knowing hands, which reproduce the subtleties of bamboo stalks and peony petals with the kind of learned apprenticeship undertaken by a sushi chef. Indeed, Kushner copied Japanese screens and textiles for almost forty years so it’s no surprise that his current show at Bellas Artes inspires the delicate, ethereality found in Japanese screens. In 2005, Bellas Artes presented a whole show of antique screens repainted by the artist with his signature flowers. Although readily available at places like Hobby Lobby, the Japanese screen still holds an allure like that of French perfume. At once a tool for concealing and revealing, the imposition of its stretched-silk panel holds inherent in its placement the sequestering of the private. Japan’s celebrated first novel, The Tale of Genji, narrates an epic tale of romances that just would not work without the mystery inherent behind the Japanese screen.
In Pink Camellia Sutra, six yellowing antiquated pages are filled with Sanskrit text and arranged in two columns. Unbound and rejoined side by side, the repurposed pages cascade fold after fold. As if silhouetting the mere wrist of a lover, Devenagari Script provides a thin base for the outline of a powdery pink camellia. It’s impossible to ignore the reference to illuminated manuscripts with the decorative gold leaf and oily brush strokes that seep luxuriously into the paper. Pink Camellia Sutra privileges the Sanskrit sutras of eastern religion over biblical and indeed Western narrative. The pink flower and the sutras become elements among many with line, color, gold leaf, and image uniting to form something akin to a textile.
This brings us back to the beginning — the still life as drapery. Kushner successfully fashioned a sardine and anchovy necklace atop a Jewish rye bread mini-vest. He covered the nude with “clothes” that will rot in a humorous punch at the fashion industry while it’s the textiles he designed and painted that could offer lasting carnal cover. Indulging in pastimes that still celebrate the feminine, Kushner is a master of bringing the domestic and the private out of seclusion. Whether it’s eating grapes off of Dionysus, weaving textiles, or repainting Japanese screens, the artist has no fear of the intimate and pleasurable. Kushner reminds us of how good it feels to linger, admiring a peony’s petals or fingering the stem of our wine glass. Even if we, like the still life, will rot away, Kushner provides a sequestered moment. Complete with antiquated book interiors, Shakespeare, musical notes, dead Eastern languages, used Parisian metro tickets, and enough gold leaf to make even plant fiber sacred, Kushner’s latest works brave the world as tousled beauties that speak of age and wisdom.
Originally published in THE Magazine.