What makes a national identity? What, in particular, gives the inhabitants of a country sentimental feelings and nostalgia for their country's past? These are central questions posed by the art of Simon Clark.
In Clark's paintings we see mid-twentieth century items which tug on our memory as Kiwiana. While on the surface, cheap, second-hand, kitsch and rusted, disposable containers are raised in our memories into taonga with the mana of ancient classical artefacts. Surrounding these items is a profusion of natural beauty — flowers, birds, and greenery speak to our ideas of New Zealand as a second Garden of Eden. This pavlova paradise is reinforced by the artist's use of vernacular phrases, making these works ‘Kiwi as’.
But just how real are these ideas? Clark suggests that our idea of 1950s New Zealand as some never-born Garden of Earthly Delights is at odds with the reality of the time, shaped by advertisers past and present. By the ready juxtaposition of Kiwiana kitsch and natural beauty we still see our country through rose (or Pohutukawa) tinted glasses.
For Clark, examining this mythmaking forms the basis for an exploration of national identity. As he puts it, "this relationship [of the natural with the cultural] has the potential to make the cultural, in this case the world of Kiwiana, appear as though it is also natural, as though it is part of the same system of meaning that we attach to the natural world, makes it appear as though it has always been here just like the flowers and the mountains. [...] By placing the cultural signifier of the Kiwiana product together with the natural signifier of the flowers I am provoking the question, is Kiwiana a natural thing or has it been constructed?"1
Clark sees these works not as still lifes, but as active, living works.
The format has been employed as much for the feeling of nostalgia it generates, linking with the nostalgic feel of the rusting containers.
The effusive floral displays are populated by native, exotic, and overseas wildlife. Clark uses these creatures and patterned motifs to explore the changing role of overseas cultures in New Zealand life and how they reflect on our self-image. In The Big O E, Pohutukawa blooms nestle with a European robin and North American native pipe. In 110 Pounds of Honey, that kiwi icon, the Buzzy Bee, is bedecked in British and Chinese flags against a backdrop of a Japanese cherry tree, the gestalt summed up by a vintage Hands Across the Sea postcard.
Clark's paintings inhabit a magical realist world of "hyperrealism" and "hypernature". Everything is accentuated - colour, detail, space. These paintings exist in their own reality of "more".2 The works become like a gentle acid trip through a kaleidoscope of Kiwiana. But while the senses are heightened, there is also the pervasive sense that the hyper-real is the un-real, that this is a fantasy world, matching the fantasy of a golden New Zealand era. Clark achieves some of these effects by the use of paint overlayed on, and accompanied by, gold leaf, the resulting surfaces having an internal reflection that sets them apart from just more paint on canvas. The tondo shapes of the works enhances this feeling, divorcing them from the square frame of windows and allowing them to float free as frozen worlds against the gallery's walls.