CLARK, Russell

Hokianga Crossroads (and 2 Pencil Sketches)

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1954
Oil on canvas
560 x 560mm

The inclusion of two descriptions for this work reflects the Maori and Pakeha curatorial approaches taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.

 

Peter Shaw

Formerly undated and known as Waiting for the Bus, this painting has been re-titled on the basis of information provided by Professor Michael Dunn from a photograph of the work inscribed by the artist. The date comes from one of a number of pencil sketches made for the subject. In the period 1949–1951, Russell Clark became well-known for his drawings and paintings of the Tuhoe people of the Ureweras reproduced in the School Journal. This work, however, had its origins in a late-1950 journey Clark made to visit the artist Eric Lee-Johnson, whose 1951 retrospective exhibition Clark was organising in Christchurch. Lee-Johnson lived near Opononi, Northland, on the road towards the hill called Tamaka at the northern entrance to the Waiotemarama-Pakanae Gorge.

This hill, described by Lee-Johnson as being as high as the Great Pyramid of Egypt, appears in the upper right of the painting. Clark was one of the first artists to attempt to represent Maori in a way that did not idealise or romanticise in the manner of Goldie or Lindauer. His paintings show the influence of English modernists such as Henry Moore, Eric Ravilious and John Minton in figure drawing, and Paul Nash in landscape depiction and paint technique. Clark was also interested in the work of Australian painters William Dobell and Russell Drysdale, whose naturalistic approach to the depiction of country people also contributed to the formation of his own style.

 

Jo Diamond

If there was ever a picture that reminds me of my parents, it is this one. Russell Clark would not have known them, but there are aspects of his painting that echo their rural backgrounds and those of numerous other Maori people of their generation. Their youthful years between the World Wars were lived here in the days when cream cans and other produce were picked up regularly by a truck or bus negotiating dusty, unsealed and often isolated rural roads. By the 1950s, large-scale urbanisation saw dramatic changes in this country life. Many Maori left for the cities to find a supposedly richer and more exciting life. For many, the ‘cow-cocky’ life rapidly drew to a close and signalled not only a distancing from the farm but also alienation from marae and rohe.

Attempts to reverse this situation have only occurred since the late 1980s, with the noticeable exodus from cities as another generation of young people returned to the papa kainga of their ancestors. Russell Clark has developed the ‘narrative’ elements of this painting from the drawing of two women sitting on the ground beneath a small, roofed structure and to which he has then added other figures, all of them obviously Maori. Of these, the central adult male undergoes the most change, altering in stance and becoming more fully and neatly clothed. It is intriguing to see how the artist deftly alters a stereotype in this process, shifting from an ostensibly unkempt to a ‘respectable’ group of Maori people.

The group is not depicted as a completely convivial and harmonious one. The two young people seem distracted, possibly dreaming adolescently of other places and other people, of the chance to rebel, perhaps to leave. This progress towards a finished painting suggests that a preoccupation with painterly effects dominates in the end. The somewhat incidental corn patch and hills in the background, though seemingly less important than the human story emerging in the foreground, are part of a reference to Gauguin and late 19th Century French-based finesse rather than to Maori people’s life histories. It could be that there is also some nostalgic romance with rural life taking place in the artist’s mind as he paints.