Steve Rushton studied art at Kingston Polytechnic, exhibited regularly in England during the 1980s, studied art history at The Courtauld Institute and Birkbeck in the 1990s, and became an art and design history lecturer and arts curriculum area leader. He returned to art and started writing poetry in 2004, exhibiting regularly in London. His first chapbook collection Burning a Paper Plate—Towards a New Art was published by erbacce-press in 2015. His poetry has been published in Romania, Poland and England. A poetry single Sweet Sex Education Teacher from Chichester was published by Not Your Average Type in 2012.
Yet were we all born in a flourish, individually and our solar system?
I’m in the middle of re-reading War and Peace. The first time I read it was as a student. I started it the night I arrived at art school in London, and I finished it at the end of my final year. A lot went on in-between. Perhaps for this reason I feel it’s a very painterly book, reminding me of one of my favourite painters—Courbet.* He and Tolstoy were contemporaries, realists, and achieved a poetry out of the details of everyday life—it’s earthiness. I travelled up through Courbet’s France on the train last summer, and the landscape, the rivers, cut through rock.
When I came to re-evaluate my painting practice, this notion of painterly realism (a bit of a contradiction) came into my head. How can a flourish (as painterliness seems, even if in execution it’s not) be real, so full of artifice as it is, both in conception and practice. Yet were we all born in a flourish (I hope so), individually and our solar system? This thought—however solid things may seem, they were made in a flourish—brings me on to cooking.
Paint was a realism, but is less so now. I arrived at a new material for painting, food, through a non-logical route but, looking back, it fits with the various realisms of 20th century art (cubism, minimalism, pop). Using everyday materials, letting nature (e.g. gravity, burning) take its course, albeit with a little encouragement.
And then the poetry, initially to explore what had happened, and then to build a structure around it, a structure so nuanced at times I wished the painterly act was fiction, so self-sufficient was the verse (except in subject). And aesthetically, the two were different. The art suggested chaos, random marks celebrated, played with, mess a part of the scheme, while the writing was clean, all adornment thrown away, white pages as much a part of the poem as words. Yet beneath the surface were similarities: the common words, the common everyday materials; the line between reverence and irreverence constantly crossed/re-crossed; the engagement with and rejection of tradition (with the poetry more so the latter, or perhaps the poetry engaged with the visual arts and rejected the poetry tradition).
I see all this work like a point in a relay – a baton handed over. I’ve continued making art since the food works, but the poetry has flourished more, feeding off the visual arts tradition—perhaps my search for a new material with which to paint did not stop with food, but with words, and verse.
Returning to War and Peace, one of the marvellous things about the book is the move between the historical and the personal, fact and fiction. And the move, or rather the moves, are seamless, fluid, one feeding off the other to give a greater sense of life. And I hope that’s what happens with my work.
I think I’ll finish War and Peace soon, but you never know.
* there are many interesting things about Courbet. Often cited as the first avant-garde artist, he wrote a lot about art, and entertainingly so. Yet for someone with so many ideas, his paintings were never an illustration of them. They had a physicality. When painting flesh, rock or water, he inhabited those substances, but at the same time his paint was still most definitely paint, in all its variety.
Artworks are from series 6 (burnt paper plates, food), 26cm² including frame. For more info go to www.srushton13.com.
I used to paint with paint,
Now I paint with food,
In powdered turmeric
Or a soy sauce stain,
A splash of red wine
Or Linghams 100% chilli sauce,
“A mild piquant relish
And appetizer of delightful flavour”
Though problematic drying time.
I use the mess of life
And make it messier,
Burn to bring out
Of various dried fluids
But working with these remnants
Am I negotiating
Yet another novel strategy
Or is there a chance
To see beyond artifice,
Closes the door
(way out of an impasse)
Don’t paint with paint,
Paint with food,
Artists, are you lost?
Find yourself in a paper plate.
Forget canvas and support,
The paper plate can take care of all your needs,
For stretcher, surface, also food,
Being a receptacle for it
And all things of culinary wonder.
(exhibition in the market, or why I
decided to burn a paper plate for art)
South London on the second day of October 2004.
A red bus runs after a setting sun on Brixton Road.
I walk to an exhibition somewhere in Brixton market.
I pass stalls,
Their shutters down,
I see food stained newspapers on the ground.
I smell fish and rotten vegetables
I hear a hum,
And round a corner
I find the exhibition.
I light a cigarette,
Smoke it before going in,
Watching it burn,
Breathing it in,
The smoke and the atmosphere of the place.
The art I can’t remember now—
Free wine, a few friends—
I left after a while,
And on my way home, I wondered why,
Why art paled next to the sight
Of food stained newspapers on floors at night.
I turned a corner,
I saw the light,
Was still open.
I walked in,
Looked on the shelves,
I knew what I wanted,
Wrapped in plastic but not plastic but paper,
They came in packs of different sizes.
I chose the small size.
Why had no one done this before?
The potential for transformation,
To hold all that oil on canvas couldn’t.
I ran home,
A frantic confusion of fumbled keys, closing doors,
Opening wrappers followed
Until I was ready,
To light a candle,
Pour a glass of wine,
Take a sip,
Place a paper plate under it
On a piece of newspaper, tip the glass
Until a drop fell,
And that was that,
The start of it.
I stared in wonder
At the purple splashed circle
Splattered round the edges
With tiny drops flying off towards the sides,
It was beautiful, beautiful.
I raised it,
Placed it above the candle,
The wine turned colour
Like brown stars.
I was transfixed, transfixed,
By the transformation of it,
From everyday material
Into something else,
Of this world
But more than it,
More than oil on canvas can allow,
This burnt and stained paper plate
Was something to be worshipped
Anyone can burn a paper plate,
But please be cautious,
It can be dangerous.
Biography (also a poem)
Steve Rushton studied art and art history,
Painting figurative paintings during the 1980s,
Reaching an impasse on the sixteenth of September 1992—
No-one came to his private view
(he wanted to be radical,
people just thought he was amicable,
not worth the trip to Notting Hill to see his new art,
despite a mention in Time Out—
he later found out
about the run on the pound—coincidentally
Black Wednesday, and not because of his
less than spectacular exhibition).
Various jobs followed—lecturer,
Book packer to the aristocracy,
Potato and egg door to door seller,
Milkman (brief but formative period),
Curriculum area leader—no less—
Until twelve years later
Writing manifestos in desperation
He discovered—or so he thought—a new art.
N.B. In politics and economics, Black Wednesday refers to 16 September 1992, when the British Conservative government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) after it was unable to keep the pound above its agreed lower limit in the ERM. In 1997, the UK Treasury estimated the cost of Black Wednesday at £3.4 billion (Wikipedia).