•  Level 2, 2007-08, acrylic on linen, 560 x 835mm, Park Lane Wallace Trust Development Award 2008, Wallace Arts Trust collection

    Level 2, 2007-08, acrylic on linen, 560 x 835mm, Park Lane Wallace Trust Development Award 2008, Wallace Arts Trust collection

  •  Escalator, 2007, graphite on board, 406 x 555mm, private collection

    Escalator, 2007, graphite on board, 406 x 555mm, private collection

  •  Travelator, 2011, acrylic on linen, 560 x 835mm

    Travelator, 2011, acrylic on linen, 560 x 835mm

  •  Car Park, 2008, acrylic on linen, 560 x 835mm, Team McMillan BMW Art Award 2010, private collection

    Car Park, 2008, acrylic on linen, 560 x 835mm, Team McMillan BMW Art Award 2010, private collection

  •  Sunny St Lukes, 2006, graphite on paper, 210 x 296mm, private collection

    Sunny St Lukes, 2006, graphite on paper, 210 x 296mm, private collection

  •  Parking Building, 2009, graphite on paper, 406 x 310mm

    Parking Building, 2009, graphite on paper, 406 x 310mm

  •  Escalator with Grids, 2010, acrylic and graphite on bristol board, 500 x 276mm

    Escalator with Grids, 2010, acrylic and graphite on bristol board, 500 x 276mm

  •  Grid 2, 2009, acrylic and graphite on bristol board, 410 x 276mm, private collection

    Grid 2, 2009, acrylic and graphite on bristol board, 410 x 276mm, private collection

  •  Ground level, 2009, acrylic and graphite on paper, 203 x 303mm

    Ground level, 2009, acrylic and graphite on paper, 203 x 303mm

  •  Travelator, 2009, graphite on paper, 203 x 303mm, private collection

    Travelator, 2009, graphite on paper, 203 x 303mm, private collection

  •  Grid 3, 2009, acrylic and graphite on bristol board, 220 x 335mm

    Grid 3, 2009, acrylic and graphite on bristol board, 220 x 335mm

  •  Mall, 2009, graphite on paper, 412 x 276mm

    Mall, 2009, graphite on paper, 412 x 276mm

  •  Car Park with Grid, 2009, graphite on paper, 412 x 310mm

    Car Park with Grid, 2009, graphite on paper, 412 x 310mm

  •  Mall exhibition at Gus Fisher Gallery, University of Auckland, 2010. Photo: Sam Hartnett

    Mall exhibition at Gus Fisher Gallery, University of Auckland, 2010. Photo: Sam Hartnett

  •  Mall exhibition at Gus Fisher Gallery, University of Auckland, 2010. Photo: Sam Hartnett

    Mall exhibition at Gus Fisher Gallery, University of Auckland, 2010. Photo: Sam Hartnett

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.  
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© 2009-2022 Ruth Cleland & authors. All rights reserved.