Lena Rushing: Pop Surrealism Gets Personal

"Perserverance" by Lena Rushing
"Perseverance" by Lena Rushing is one of the paintings figured in the exhibition "Methods of Madness" at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo.

The women who populate Grover Beach artist Lena Rushing's work swim with sharks, play with panthers and nap with narwhals. They're fierce, defiantly feminist with a capital-F "f-ck you attitude."

"A lot of it is my response to pressure from the outside," said Rushing, who originally hails from Huntington Beach. "It's all a cathartic process."

Rushing, 40, offers a glimpse into her artistic process in the solo exhibition "Methods of Madness," which runs through April at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. Acrylic paintings and paper shadow-box constructions are paired with small booklets depicting different steps in the progress of each piece.

"The process is totally as interesting to me as a finished piece," explained Rushing, and just as revealing. That's why she's content to leave visible "the bones" -- an errant drip of paint, the shadow of a preliminary sketch, the flash of a colorful first coat.

Slyly subversive and rife with personal symbolism, Rushing's special brand of surrealism has earned acolytes around California.

San Luis Obispo artist Neal Breton readily lists Rushing among the top three painters in San Luis Obispo County, along with Mark Bryan and Daniel Dove. "Everything time I see a (Rushing) show, I'm like, 'This is it. ... These paintings are amazing. There's no way that she could make these better,'" he said. "Then you go to the next show she does, and she tops herself."

Painter and printmaker Anne Laddon, founder of Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, said she was struck from the start by Rushing's "deep, deep commitment to art making."

"There are only a handful of artists (in San Luis Obispo County) who are as serious about the process as she is," Laddon said, describing Rushing as "very creative and experimental." "She's saying more about her interior life than most artists, and she does it beautifully. She is authentically herself."

"Imaginary Fiend" by Lena Rushing
"Imaginary Fiend" by Lena Rushing

Identity and duplicity play powerful roles in Rushing's work, where a prowling panther can stand in for a sexual predator or a plummeting bird can serve as a symbol for despair.

That dichotomy is mirrored by a public persona split into two distinct facets. There's Lena the warm, well-dressed wife and mother who politely lowers her voice when she cusses, and Lena the rebel, the runaway, the outlaw.

Rushing was 4 when her parents divorced. She lived with her mother under age 12, then moved in with her dad -- but neither parent, it seemed, had much success controlling her.

"I was always good in that I didn't want my parents to be disappointed in me, but I still did whatever I wanted," the artist recalled, whether that meant dying her hair with Manic Panic dye, smoking cigarettes at school or sneaking out of the house at night to dance at the now-closed Studio K at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park.

Rushing ran away from home so many times that she received luggage as a high school graduation gift. ("So I didn't have to grab a plastic bag," she explained.")

Lena Rushing | Courtesy photo
Lena Rushing | Courtesy photo

"I wouldn't have described myself as depressed up to that point," Rushing recalled, "but I was really dark." When she moved to the Central Coast from Riverside in her early 20s to finish her fine arts degree at Cuesta College, "I would purposely park my car in my condo's garage so, on my day off from work, none of my friends knew I was home. ... I didn't want to go out. I didn't want to do anything."

That attitude shifted when Rushing became a mother at age 26. "It changed me completely. I had never been so happy in my entire life," said Rushing, now mom to a 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. "I just felt this explosion of joy and love and things I (had) always made fun of."

Rushing's dark side didn't go away entirely, of course.

"I still have the same feelings. It's just that I have a different place to put them," she explained. "Most of the time, I'm the mom at school who's crazy. I really am that person. ... But this other (persona) is really me too. It just fits better into art than into my life."

Rushing said her work helps her cope with emotions that would otherwise be overwhelming. "Reading the news will break my heart," she said, adding that, without art, "I would just be devastated all day long and I wouldn't be able to raise a family or get out of bed. It's all real, and it's f-cking crushing."

"Peppermint Bay" by Lena Rushing
"Peppermint Bay" by Lena Rushing

One motif that crops up repeatedly in Rushing's work are predators -- dangerous animals that her seemingly fearless female protagonists keep under control.

In "Peppermint Bay," a lingerie-clad dancer with a frank, self-aware stare poses on a platform surrounded by candy-striped shark fins.

A moray eel stalks a determined-looking woman and her ghostly twin in "Perseverance." And in "The Giver," two albino alligators loom behind a nonchalant nude woman whose attention is distracted by a pink fruit bat nibbling on the strawberry she holds.

Rushing said those deadly predators signify men, particularly their potential for physical and sexual violence. "My husband likes to joke that I'm a man hater, but I'm not," she said. "There's something so different about men that I just can't understand."

By intentionally putting themselves in harm's way, Rushing said, her heroines -- whose heads often sport playful red-and-white striped swirls in the place of hair -- are proving their power. "You are powerful, just because you're a woman. ... You can't deny it," she said.

"The Giver" by Lena Rushing.jpg
"The Giver" by Lena Rushing.jpg

In May 2014, Rushing organized and curated the exhibition "Powerful Woman" at Linnaea's Cafe in San Luis Obispo. Fifty female artists paid tribute to feminist icons ranging from sharpshooter Annie Oakley to singer Mavis Staples to writer, philosopher and women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft.

Rushing said the inspiration for the show arose out of a run-in with a male volunteer referee at her daughter's soccer game. She noticed that her daughter, then 8, seemed intimidated by an aggressive player on the opposing team.

"So I said, 'Don't be scared, honey. It's okay,'" Rushing said. "That's what I was yelling. Not 'Get her.' Not fight back.'" Even so, the artist got a nasty reaction from the referee.

"He turned to my coach for some reason ... and said, 'She needs to to shut it, or you're going to have to get it off the field,'" Rushing said. "My immediate reaction was to stand up in front of all these eight-year-old girls and be like 'F-ck you' and really rip him a new asshole ... (But) I was so afraid of humiliating (my daughter) that I did the wrong thing. I stayed quiet."

The "Powerful Women" show, she said, "was my way of redeeming myself."

"Everything I've done as an artist," Rushing added, has been moving toward that goal of celebrating "sassy women who say 'I'll do what I want.'" But as defiant as her heroines are, they're also haunted -- by external pressures and inner struggles.

"Provocateur" by Lena Rushing
"Provocateur" by Lena Rushing

A dozen dive-bombing birds surround the saintly central figure in "Provocateur," while a wounded cardinal, representing Jesus Christ, hovers near her haloed head. (Rushing's daughter served as a model for the piece as well as one of her favorite paintings, "Imaginary Fiend.")

Rushing noted that the chalice the girl holds has no base. "I wanted it to be more like a burden, like she can never set (it) down," the artist explained. "When she has a daughter, she has to pass that on to her child."

Asked why the plummeting birds have diaphanous capes fluttering from their shoulders, Rushing said, "I felt like I needed to give them hope. (So) I put their parachutes on."

But that's only one explanation. According to the artist, her work is always open to interpretation.

"I absolutely want other people to look at it as a narrative piece ... and recognize there are symbols, but I don't want to tell people what all the symbols are," she said, partially because she wants to free viewers to draw their own conclusions. "If I asked 20 different people, (I would find) they're all having a totally different experience from the same piece. I love that."

"Adrift" by Lena Rushing
"Adrift" by Lena Rushing

Rushing's work has been receiving plenty of scrutiny as of late. In February, she participated in the group show "Eat Your Heart Out" at Studios on the Park. In March, she was featured in the exhibition "Laluzapalooza" at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles.

2014 brought shows at venues including The Artery in Atascadero, Vale Fine Art Gallery in Paso Robles and Johnson Art Gallery and The Bunker, both in San Luis Obispo. Rushing also took part in the "Savages" group show at Studios on the Park; the annual show, which features younger artists, comes to the Steynberg Gallery in September.

"As a fan of art, I'm drawn to her content," said "Savages" organizer Neal Breton, a member of the local art collectives The Bunker and Fiasco Gallery. "And as a paint nerd, as a person who wants to unravel the mystery of a process, I'm always satisfied by looking deeply into her work aesthetically- - the way she's layered paint, the colors she's chosen, her brushstrokes. When you see them, you see them for a reason."

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Even though her own work tends to be "tidy," Rushing said she's drawn to artists such as Lucian Freud, Andrew Hem, John Wentz and Christine Wu, who take a more painterly approach. "I like to look at (the canvas) and think that "There was so much movement on (the artist's part)," she said. "I like work that looks like you put a lot of work into. ... Maybe I like to see a little suffering."

She gleans daily inspiration from the artists she follows on Instagram, as well as local luminaries such as Josephine Crawford, Peg Grady and David Settino Scott. "There are times when you look at something and you're inspired (to say) 'Wow, this makes me want to work hard and try and do better.' And there are some that make me go, 'I am never painting again.'"

"I'm not in a hurry. I'm not driven to be famous and make a lot of money," she added. "I just want to do whatever the f-ck I want, as far as art goes, and put it out there."

"Sister" by Lena Rushing
"Sister" by Lena Rushing


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