THROUGH most of the last year, we’ve all been forced to focus on the homes in which we live. How do we really feel about these places? Might art help us re-imagine them? Artist Robbie Bushe, shortlisted for the prestigious John Moores Prize, talks to Susan Mansfield about his work

FOR most of this lockdown year, artist Robbie Bushe has been working on “Dwell”, his major solo exhibition currently online at Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery. In it, he paints all the places he has lived, from early childhood (he phoned family members for advice) to his current home in south-west Edinburgh. “It’s been something ridiculous like 29 houses in 57 years,” he smiles.

But this is no ordinary examination of “home”. These are houses opened up like architectural scale models, tenements without walls in which the miniature dramas of neighbours are played out in vibrant colour. There are real homes and fantastical ones, memories blended with works of imagination.

Bushe has been painting since he graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1990, but in recent years his work has been attracting increasing levels of attention. In 2016, he became the inaugural winner of the W Gordon Smith Painting Award and, last year, he reached the shortlist of five for the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize, which had some 3000 entries.

“Dwell” is his most personal show to date. Though not a lockdown project – it was under way before that – its subject resonates deeply in this time of pandemic. It began with some small paintings of Glenburn, “a large awkward granite bungalow” in the Aberdeenshire village of Tornaveen where Bushe lived between the ages of seven and 12. “It was an incredibly important part of my childhood,” he says. “We’d moved from the city to the country, so that was a big marker for us. It was also 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’s a lifetime.”

Paintings of Glenburn “just started to flow out of me”, Bushe says. Then he made the decision to widen the scope of the show to include his other homes, from student digs to the places he lived while teaching art in colleges in Chichester, Hastings, Oxford. “For me it was a really interesting thing because it gave me anchors to moments in time, the living space, the kind of dialogue, the people I was with” he said.

Bushe is fascinated by memory after working with a colleague at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Open Leaning who is an expert on the subject. “Once we’ve recreated a version of a memory, we’ve created a new memory of that occasion because it adds to and distorts it. When we do recall an event, we don’t just press a button to play, we actually have to reconstruct it. But if somebody has told you a slightly different version of events in between times, that will impact on the memory. I’m fascinated – the paintings have become as important as the real events.”

The National: Pictures of home

His years at Glenburn were a time when his imagination could run free, immersing himself in imagined stories enriched by comic books, Look & Learn Annuals and the sci-fi he loved on TV. He still remembers the day at Torphins Primary School when he slipped out of class and, looking in the mirror in the boy’s toilets, spoke to his adult self. “I don’t remember what we said, but I always remember that moment. It’s like an anchor, something you’d imagine in a British sci-fi kids’ TV series, which I would have devoured at the time. That moment was my introduction into being aware of timelines, looking back and looking forward.”

The Robbie Bushe who looked in the mirror wanted to be a comic book artist. Each week he pored over the megacities of Judge Dredd in 2000AD. Both parents were artists – his father was sculptor Fred Bushe – so creativity was encouraged, but he couldn’t see a way into comics.

“Even when I was applying for Edinburgh College of Art, there was no department where you could do that. If I had chosen Illustration at that time, I would have spent three years learning how to draw nice middle-class picture books of talking squirrels. But this was 1985 and, over in Glasgow, Steven Campbell and co were making huge waves with paintings which I thought looked like huge comic strips. Campbell was my cue to study painting and try, covertly, to make my comic strips as paintings. For a while, Anne Redpath and William Gillies won out as I developed a quiet, narrative, domestic, approach. In recent years, however, I rediscovered how to play and tap into my childhood obsessions and ambitions.”

THE quiet interior scenes of his early work have now given way to much larger scale compositions. Outside and inside perspectives are combined. Buildings are opened up like the cutaway illustrations of L Ashwell Wood for The Eagle. Stories play out against sprawling dystopian suburbs and cities which expand in three dimensions.

There are secret laboratories and underground factories, even (if you look closely) the occasional Dalek.

One catalyst was the merger between Edinburgh College of Art and Edinburgh University in 2011, which meant Bushe – who runs the Short Course programme at ECA – had to relocate from the art school to the Centre for Open Learning. 

“It took a long time to adjust to that, I felt like I was being detached. I started to make a whole series of drawings of the main ECA building.

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“Then I started working in the new building in Paterson’s Land near Holyrood, and started doing drawings of that area. I just got fascinated by it. I’m interested in civil engineering and excavation and very sculptural drawing, which I think I get from my father. I discovered I could paint over really detailed drawings.”

For “Neoneanderthals”, a two-person exhibition at the RSA in 2019 with sculptor Jeanne Cannizzo, he again re-imagined aspects of Edinburgh. The show drew on recent Neanderthal research as well as aspects of fantasy and science fiction. In the painting Bushe entered in the John Moores Prize, “The Neanderthals Future Infirmary”, the city’s former hospital on Lauriston Place, opens up to reveal subterranean Neanderthal cloning chambers below ground.

While “Dwell” is more grounded in realism, there are some paintings in the show which have an allegorical or satirical quality. “Lost in the Supermarket” captures a frenzied moment in the early days of lockdown (“I went out to get toilet paper and this is what I came back and painted.”) 

Other works show houses marooned in the rising floodwaters of melted ice caps or threatened by bush fires, “which is completely to do with where we find ourselves globally – there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. There’s a warmth running through the show, but there’s also an undercurrent which is questioning the way that we’ve lived our lives, particularly in the West. I think if I was to carry on this theme, that might be a direction I would work on”.

Robbie Bushe: Dwell is at until April 24