Grid wall text by Victoria Wynne-Jones, Window Gallery, University of Auckland, 28 October - 22 November 2014

Recently Cleland has started to include within her works portions of grids, the very ones used to transfer and enlarge her photorealist suburban paintings square by square from photographs. By leaving behind such grids viewers are therefore privy to Cleland’s meticulous practice. Like a magician revealing the secrets of her tricks, Cleland lays her process bare for all the world to see and makes the painting process itself the subject matter of her practice.

These remnants of artifice and construction have become the focus of ‘Grid,’ an exhibition made up of a series of thirteen paintings. Extremely subtle, at first they seem monochromatic, yet upon closer inspection they reveal variations, small shifts in tone and hue. Due to varied treatments of paint surface one starts to see hints of mauve, cream, blue as well as grey. Sometimes flecks of paint or thin wisps of clouds can be seen behind the regularity of the grids.

Painting with acrylic on aluminium, Cleland also thematises the matrices or structures that are grids. Engaging with what art historian Rosalind Krauss called the grid’s ‘will to silence,’ Cleland’s bewilderingly precise hand-painted grids indicate a perpetual organising, geometricising and flattening of space. There is an emphasis on visuality as well as an ambiguity about what is actually shown, or what can really be seen.

Responding to the specific containment of this exhibition space as well as its transparency, distancing and reflection, Cleland places a configuration of grids behind glass, within the architectural grid that is Window. The result is a gentle probing of ways of framing, containing, presenting and perceiving.

Inland Empire, exhibition catalogue by Steph Chalmers, 2013

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Mall by Anna Jackson, 2008

Like many of New Zealand's eighties' kids, I grew up with the mall as an extension of our backyard. Toy World and the Pet Shop lined their shelves with objects of my childish fascination, my tween years were spent loitering in the aisles of Kmart and chilling at MacDonald's, and by fifteen I was a part-time employee at the mall. Completely at home in its embrace, we grew up with the mall as a central point of our community. It is, after all, the mighty beacon of Suburbia. 

Ruth Cleland is well versed in the tenets of Suburbia. Known for her delicate renditions of suburban settings, from home interiors to car parks and residential streets her works have been recently recognised with the Park Lane Wallace Trust Development Award at the Wallace Art Awards and a Merit Award at the National Drawing Awards.  Her photorealist drawings and paintings are infused with an eerie stillness that puts the Suburban lifestyle in the spotlight. Cleland's perspective carefully eschews judgment of her subject, and rather, offers a realistic portrayal of its elements, allowing her viewers to bring to it their own interpretations.   

Although a complex structure, Suburbia can be simplified to just a few integral elements, least of which is the shopping mall, the subject of Cleland’s awarding winning painting Level 2. 

Malls first opened in New Zealand in the 1970s and were hailed as a fresh and innovative approach to shopping. The average mall now has retail stores for every occasion; food from every continent; and from movies to massage and manicures, the mall fulfils every need. Tweaked to perfection, mall management works hard to keep its punters happy. Spot the abundance of designated car parks for parents-with-prams and the sprinkling of couches for the elderly to pause upon, and it's clear that they understand demographics too. Malls are able to host huge volumes of people at any one time (our biggest mall has over 2000 car parks - insightful given the likelihood of actually finding one there). Never mind what’s happening outside, mall visits are an all weather affair. Thanks to technology and carefully monitored climate control, humid day, winter’s day, rainy day, any day will do. The mall is tirelessly accessible and with phenomenal opening hours, it never seems to sleep (it does two and a half days a year). The mall is a melting pot of cultures and classes, and its ability to cater to such diversity so constantly is second to none. It’s even reported that a disturbingly large number of New Zealanders prefer a family trip to the mall than a trip to the beach – something about appealing to all members of the clan. People are comfortable at the mall and it is, believe it or not, a home away from home, for many. At the mall, you see, everyone is equal.

While this may leave us all feeling like cheery and content little shoppers, there is something a little eerie about the feeling of equality that the mall promotes.  The concept may be primarily driven by consumerism but it’s no surprise that malls are found at the heartbeat of suburban communities. Discredited for its lack of diversity by those who choose to avoid it, the suburban lifestyle is embraced by others for exactly that. Where suburban once meant to live outside of the city, it’s now associated with a specific way of life that appears to embrace homogeneity.   

Ruth Cleland subtly picks up on this homogeneity in her removal of personal details from her scenes. Number plates are carefully edited out and store signs are pixellated – a technique often utilised by news and reality TV media to protect privacy and commercial copyrights. What were once distinguishing details are no longer relevant. Each car in Cleland’s car park could belong to any one of its suburban residents – if there were any. Her works are void of all human activity. The cars and homes of her potential protagonists are depicted in her works, but their absence suggests that they are not unique, for any person could occupy them.  

While she tends to capture her subjects from the same frontal viewpoint but her perspective is not uniform. Not only do her subjects document varied aspects of Suburbia, Cleland’s viewpoint is suggestive of many perspectives within it.  At times the viewer is invited into the picture frame of Suburbia, up monumental escalators that leave one curious as to where they might lead, or we are taken down the path of a sunny street. At other times her invitation to look into residential homes is interrupted by tinted windows and closed doors that stop the voyeur’s urge to pry. The viewers find themselves, in Level 2, inside the mall looking out through automatic doors, perhaps longing for respite from the mall. 

Never quite separating the impulses of love from anxiety, Cleland both obsesses over and nurtures her subjects. Echoing the homogeneity embraced by suburbia she minimises the appearance of hand made marks through a painstaking process, which has her work appear as though it may have been made by a machine. In fact a single painting takes many months to complete and in this she captures the essence of Suburbia. Like her chosen technique, Cleland’s Suburbia is manicured, perfected and relentless.  

At a glance, there is nothing overtly spectacular about Cleland’s suburbia – poignantly, that is the point.  

Utopia or Nightmare? by Virginia Were, Art News New Zealand, Summer 2008, pp 68-71

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