Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Elephant No. 102: Jack Bush Elephant

Jack Bush is not an artist who was ever top-of-mind for me. I knew who he was, of course, but I've never been a major aficionado of Abstract art. That changed a few weeks ago, when my artist friend Peter Gould took me to a major retrospective of Bush's art at the National Gallery of Canada.

Bush began his career in advertising, producing detailed art for posters, ads, catalogues and books. A small section of the exhibition is devoted to his commercial work, and it's quite an eye-opener. Despite the fact that Bush made an international name for himself as an Abstract painter, his skill as a draughtsman is astonishing. He also experimented with numerous styles of painting and drawing, and one of my favourite works in the exhibition is actually a painting that owes more to German Expressionism than anything else.

Yesterday (1947)
Jack Bush (1909–1977)
Oil on masonite
Jack Bush Heritage Corporation © Estate of Jack Bush
Source: apt613.ca

In the late 1940s, Bush banded with ten other Canadian Abstract artists to form Painters Eleven, whose avowed purpose was the promotion of Abstract art in Canada. Although Painters Eleven would disband a few years later, a number of its artists, including Harold Town, Jock Macdonald and Bush himself, went on to enjoy international acclaim.

Bonnet (1961)
Jack Bush (1909–1977)
Oil on canvas
© Estate of Jack Bush
Source: Macleans Magazine

Jack Bush is perhaps most famous for his Color Field paintings, which masterfully juxtapose blocks, bands and slashes of colour. Most of his later works aren't remotely figural, so making an elephant inspired by his art was likely to be a challenge.

Chopsticks (1977)
Jack Bush (1909–1977)
Oil on canvas
© Estate of Jack Bush
Source: Macleans Magazine

I decided to start by rolling paint onto a 5 x 7 canvas board, copying a technique Bush used on some of my favourite works of his.

Since this was to be something of a Color Field painting, I decided to choose my colours carefully. For anyone who knows colour theory, you'll know that if you place certain colours—such as orange and blue or red and green—next to one another, a sort of visual vibration occurs. I thought I might try going for something like that. Or, in a pinch, colours that simply appealed to me.

I was a bit intimidated by the canvas, as Abstract is not something that comes naturally to me, so I made a sketch to give myself confidence.

I also wanted it to look at least remotely like an elephant, while also being abstract. I decided to use slashes of bright colour, hoping for the best.

It turned out better than I expected, although it's no Jack Bush. It doesn't make me laugh like my ridiculous Willem de Kooning elephant, but I still find it surprisingly pleasing.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants probably wouldn't get much out of a Color Field painting, because they can only see certain colours. Studies have shown that elephants likely can't see the colour red—similar to "colour-blindness" in some humans.

This is partly a function of the elephant's need to see clearly both at night and during the day. Whereas humans basically see in black-and-white at night and full colour during the day, elephants see a limited colour spectrum during both day and night. Interestingly, these spectrums are different, depending on time of day.

The two photographs below suggest how elephants see colour, as compared to human vision.

Tulip gardens at Keukenhof, Holland
Photo: Vera Kratochvil
Source: Public domain

How an elephant might see the same scene.

To read a comprehensive scientific study of elephant colour sensitivity, click here.

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