It's 1975, in a primary school in Aberdeenshire. 10-year-old Robbie Bushe slips out of class as he often does - he’s unhappy here. Looking in the mirror in the boys’ toilets, he begins a conversation with his adult self.
He doesn’t remember much about what was said, but the moment itself has become totemic: “That moment was my introduction to being aware of timelines, looking back and looking forward. It became a vehicle for time travel.” Working on his current exhibition, opening this week at Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery, he returned to it again.
‘Dwell’ began with a series of small paintings of Glenburn, his home at that time, a “large, awkward granite bungalow” in the Aberdeenshire hamlet of Tornaveen. “It was an incredibly important part of my childhood, a very strong moment in my life. We had moved from the city to the country, and it was the last time we all lived together as a large family before my parents split up. We lived there five years, when you’re a child that seems like forever.”
Sketching detailed architectural drawings of the house, he would then paint over them, opening up elevations to reveal the rooms inside. He then applied the same technique to the various houses in which he has lived since - “something ridiculous like 29 houses in 57 years” - right up to his current Edinburgh home.
“For me it was really interesting because it gave me anchors to moments in time. I’ve not steered away from difficult moments in my life, but I’ve not done it to open wounds, I’ve done it to explore that space. The paintings started to flow out of me. At the moment, it’s an endless mine of material. It’s be an absolute labour of love.”
He was also able to draw on a collaboration with an Edinburgh University colleague (he is coordinator of short courses in art for the university) on the subject of memory. “I’m fascinated by it,” he says. “When we recall an event, we don’t just press a button to play, we actually have to reconstruct it. And once we’ve recreated a new version of a memory, we’ve created a new memory of that occasion - it adds to and distorts it. The paintings have become as important events as the events they recall.”
Bushe says he spent his childhood inventing worlds and stories, devouring Look and Learn annuals and watching sci-fi on TV. Since he graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1990, he has been a narrative painter, but it’s only in recent years that his work has had the freedom and ambition of those early inventions.
Recent paintings have been, by turns, playful, dystopian, fantastical, satirical. Vistas of sprawling suburbs and multi-level cities coexist with paintings of buildings cutaway to reveal clandestine organisations and subterranean laboratories. They are complex and richly coloured, sometimes hard to decipher, always intriguing.
Bushe says: “I’m interested in civil engineering and very sculptural drawing, which I think I get from my father (the sculptor, Fred Bushe). I’ve known about cutaways since the Look & Learn annuals, it’s an illustrative device for showing the workings of something, and I wanted to show the workings of people’s lives. I was also interested in excavating, going down into things.”
Recent years have brought increasing recognition including a win in the W Gordon Smith Painting Award in 2016, and representation by the Open Eye Gallery. Then, in 2020, Bushe was shortlisted for the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize, one of a shortlist of five selected from around 3,000 entries (the prize was eventually won by Kathryn Maple). He is full of praise for the organisers, who have managed to hang the exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery during lockdown, and hopes it will open to the public in mid April.
His shortlisted painting, ‘The Neanderthal Future Infirmary’, was created for his 2019 exhibition at the RSA, ’Neoneanderthals’, a collaboration with Canadian sculptor Jeanne Cannizzo. The show combined recent scientific discoveries about neanderthals with elements of fantasy and sci-fi, imagining, among other things, a neanderthal cloning lab in the sub-basements below Edinburgh’s former Royal Infirmary.
By contrast, ’Dwell’ is a much more personal project, shaped (if not defined) by a year in lockdown. “The first works were to do with people dwelling at home, polar ice caps melting and the bush fires in Australia, which is completely to do with where we find ourselves globally. There’s another one of everyone going crazy in an apocalyptic supermarket - I went out to get toilet paper, and that’s what I came back and painted.
“I debated about whether I wanted to make works which were so specific to that time. But I couldn’t not make some works like that because I always react to what’s going on to some extent. I’m not a political artist, but will always bring in an observation or an experience. There’s a warmth running through the whole show, but there’s also an undercurrent of questing the way we live.”
Robbie Bushe: Dwell. Online with The Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, 6th - 24th April.