He is severely allergic to the paint he uses, but David Rusbatch tells Sarah Freeman that the end result is worth the occasional trips to A&E. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
Michelangelo almost went blind from the paint dripping off the Sistine Chapel, Van Gough cut off his ear and Edvard Munch descended into alcoholism. David Rusbatch also suffers for his art. So much so that he has been hospitalised twice and knows that every new work may very well require a shot of antihistamine.
“I’m allergic to the gels I use,” admits the Leeds-based artist. “And it’s getting worse. When I first started using them a few years ago I would get a slight reaction, but the more I’ve used them, the more allergic I’ve got.
“Now when I am working I have to have all the doors and windows open, which isn’t great when it’s the middle of winter, but even then sometimes it gets too much. I start hyperventilating and on the couple of occasions it has got really bad I’ve had to go to A&E to get sorted out. At some point I’ll have to start using different materials, but for now I can just about cope.”
Rusbatch isn’t one to moan and, while his latest exhibition, Flaunt Every Kiss, which has just opened at Harrogate’s RedHouse Originals gallery, had a few hairy moments, it was, he says, worth the odd period of breathlessness. We speak just after he has hung the final work and surrounded by his new collection he admits his journey to the easel was an unlikely one. “When I was growing up, it was all about sport. I played football to a decent level and I think I assumed that I would always be involved in sport, but then I go injured. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to avoid getting a proper job, so that’s when I thought I’d give the art a go.”
While he does a nice line in modesty, Rusbatch’s natural talent won him a place at the prestigious St Martin’s College which was where his trademark style first began to develop.
In 2008 he became one of the youngest ever exhibitors at the National Design Museum and the following year his work was shown at the Venice Biennale, but he admits that it was another five years before he had his real breakthrough moment.
“I was doing ok, but it was Lost and Found which changed everything,” he says of the 2014 collection. A celebration of country’s club culture, it won praise from the likes of Boy George and Fat Boy Slim and confirmed Rusbatch’s status as one of the UK’s most exciting emerging artists.
“You hope that if your art is good it will do well on its own, but the reality is that if a few famous names say they like what you are doing it’s a massive boost,” says Rusbatch.
“Faithless singer Maxi Jazz said my work was ‘experimental, engaging, playful and unafraid of the dark’. I liked that and it really felt that people were getting what I was trying to do.”
His 2016 work I Used to Sleep at Night was inspired by the Yorkshire Dales, but the green hues of Malham and the surrounding area were replaced with neon tones.
Flaunt Every Kiss is similarly in your face and for each of the 25 paintings in the new collection, Rusbatch has taken inspiration from the often fleeting nature of love and relationships in the 21st century.
“These days you can order a date just like you order your shopping,” he says, referring to the glut of online dating sites and swipe left apps. “I’ve been there and done that and for some reason most of the girls I seemed to attract on Tinder were a bit mentally unstable.
“I guess what I wanted to explore was those lost souls of romance, those who are socially awkward and those who never seem to find the right person.
“From a really early age we are all told that only love will make you truly happy, but what no one tells you is how difficult that can be to find. I am, I think, a romantic at heart, but one of the paintings in the collection is called The Bestest Things in Life and I wanted to show that there are other things that can make you happy.”
Written on the works are the things that make Rusbatch happy, which range from “popping bubble wrap” and “the smell of crayons” and “tripping and realising no one saw you”.
“I want my art to make people think, to provoke a reaction, but I also want to make people smile. It’s always lovely to see a new collection here. I have been working with RedHouse for years and they have always been incredibly supportive.
“When I was starting out there weren’t any galleries in Leeds where new artists could exhibit and finding this place was really the start of my career proper.”
Flaunt Every Kiss, RedHouse Originals, Harrogate, April 27 to May 26.