Artist Michael Bush takes more control in ‘Noun’

The painter caps a busy 2023 with a new solo show opening at Gravity on Saturday, Jan. 6.
One of the works in "Noun," a new exhibit from Michael Bush opening at Gravity on Jan. 6.
One of the works in "Noun," a new exhibit from Michael Bush opening at Gravity on Jan. 6.Courtesy the artist

Michael Bush has long been enamored with the pareidolia effect, in which a person can spot recognizable forms in clouds, rock formations and other natural phenomena. 

“In my phone, 78 percent of the photos are of clouds and landscapes,” the artist said in an early January Zoom call. “I don’t drive, so if I’m in a car with a friend, my phone is out the window on a sunny day just popping off [pictures of] clouds. I mean, it’s such a cliche thing to hear an artist say they get inspiration from nature, but so many of us do. We might not have our nose in an art book that day, but we have seen some clouds, or maybe some coloration in the sky that made us say, ‘Man, I should make that into a painting.”

Bush’s paintings have long conjured similar sensations, his emotive, amorphous early works occasionally suggesting forms but tending more toward the abstract. One 2018 painting, entitled “Sitting on Top of the World” and displayed in a 2020 group exhibit at Secret Studio, centered on a colorful burst of impressionistic, exploding orbs. “It’s almost where you’re seeing this collision that springs out with a lot of energy,” Bush said at the time.

But in a trio of exhibits that unfolded over the course of 2023, the artist began to administer at least some control over his abstract approach.

In the first, which took place at Sarah Gormley Gallery, Bush deployed his technique in service of a series of dreamy landscapes. The second, a Mother’s Day-themed exhibit at Secret Studio, found him creating flower-like abstractions in tribute to his own mom, Eloise, who operated a craft store, Florally Yours and More, when Bush was a child. And then the year ended with a duet show alongside artist and partner Doug Fordyce in which Bush “carved” his abstractions into a series of figure-like portraits. Paintings from all three of these distinctive eras will be on display in “Noun,” a new solo exhibit from Bush opening at Gravity on Saturday, Jan. 6.

While subtle, the shift in Bush's approach is noticeable – I recall being struck by the works Buch created for the Mother’s Day exhibit when the paintings later resurfaced in the debut show at Project Unicorn. Bush traced this growth both to a desire to continue to evolve his work in ways that keep it fresh for him, as well as to the reality that the craft has and continues to reflect his own existence. Bush first picked up a brush in 2006 as part of an art therapy program, and he said the abstract paintings he created often reflected the knotted emotions for which he sometimes didn’t have the words.

“I was going through some things in the early 2000s where if I would have kept on those paths I probably wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “I’d always joke that if you saw me using bright colors, it might not be the best day, because there was some heat coming out of it. … My paintings were almost a mood ring telling me where I was [emotionally].”

Now, Bush said, he’s at a point in his life where he feels more in control, and the recent work reflects this new reality.

Growing up, Bush split his time between Gary, Indiana, and Columbus, raised by a mother whose interest in the arts found a willing partner in her child. Bush recalled making myriad visits to the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, and the times he got in trouble in grade school for filling the pages of his notebook with doodles of sneakers. “I’ve always been immersed in art, even though I didn’t really start creating until later in life,” he said.

In “Florally Yours,” named for his mother’s former shop and staged at Secret Studio in May 2023, Bush paid tribute to these roots, as well as to the myriad women who have played an important role in helping to shape him, and in particular his mother, who died in 2016. “Yesterday was her birthday, so she’s been on my mind these last couple of days,” said Bush, who views his mother’s influence in everything from his sense of humor and his creative drive to less welcome traits like his shopping obsession. “I think I spent a lot of my adult life wanting to make her proud. … It gets a little easier every year, but Mother’s Day is still a hard one for me, and it’s something that hurts every time it comes around. So, I knew I had that show coming up in May, and it was like, ‘This is what I want to do for her.’”

With “Noun” set to open this weekend, Bush said he views this new exhibit as a clearing of the decks, of sorts, allowing him to celebrate and acknowledge the work he created in the last year as he prepares to hit pause, allowing time for whatever might come after to develop.

“I don’t think there’s going to be another solo show until 2025 or 2026,” said Bush, whose focus the next year will be on curating the gallery space at Stonewall. “I mean, I’m never not painting. If you look behind me you’ll see an easel now. But I need time to research and to push things further. Then I can make something that speaks to what I feel I need to say next.”

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