Mark Ussher has a deep and abiding interest in the early origins of graphic culture in post-war New Zealand. His explorations of published commercial art from the 1950s and ‘60s speak to the societal ideals of that era and the transition of values over time. Rather than generating his own imagery, he collects key images from old magazines, packaging, signage and newspapers. He then reconfigures them into his own snappy statements on advertising that demonstrate its potential as a mirror for social change.
Although he is clearly enamoured with the colours and peppy imagery of the time, Ussher’s works are not merely visual exercises – images are selected for their power to indicate New Zealand’s cultural evolution. The recent works also feature regional images (Welcome to Auckland; Foxton Fizz) as part of Ussher’s unmistakably ‘kiwi’ iconography. Images selected are witticisms, featuring puns and anachronistic language which show how the passing of time transforms them from convincing and plausible advertisements, into ridiculous faux pas.
Post-war New Zealand experienced economic growth, a baby boom and a sharp increase in the amount of advertising viewed by the average person. This was the true emergence of suburban culture and the consumerist society as we know it today. It was also a time associated with the establishment of a national identity, as we became increasingly separate from the imperatives of the British Empire. This shift resulted in closer ties with America, also reflected in trade relationships and the advent of many American-manufactured products to our shores.
Ussher attributes at least part of his fascination with post-war graphics to his nostalgia for a less cynical society. These were the days when a bottle of dishwashing liquid could plausibly promise ecstatic happiness: “the happy, shiny promise of a new world, all wonder and prosperity”. Indeed, almost all of his works feature a distinctive high-shine finish that smacks of advertising spin; a lustrous coating over the recycled surfaces of his work.
Despite this surface gloss, Ussher’s works generally have a prosaic presentation – visible screws through the face of works; recycling mundane objects such as ironing boards or cupboard doors; ‘Specialty’ branding that appears almost as an after-thought in the typed information along the bottom of prints. This lends a sense of ordinariness to the images, making them appear authentic and ‘everyday’. Rather than the slickest graphics with the best presentation, he depicts the type of advertising that we might have seen in the local block of shops in the suburbs in 1957 – the local mechanic, the dairy, or your granny’s favourite butcher.
Ussher brings us into the world of advertising as it appeared to post-war New Zealanders. The only thing that changes the resonance of the images is our altered perception of them. These depictions therefore become relevant to the exploration of New Zealand’s cultural identity, holding up a mirror to the shifts that have occurred in the past 50 years of our development as a nation.
Publications/Articles: Brown, Warwick, Seen this Century, North Shore City: Random House NZ, 2009; Sanderson, Kylie, Tamara Darragh and Kim Atherfold, The Artists: 21 Practitioners in New Zealand Contemporary Art c. 2009-2011, Auckland: Beatnik Publishing, 2009, pp 80-83; ‘One Love’, Next Magazine, June 2008, p 138; Sanderson, Kylie and Tamara Darragh, The Artists c. 2007-2008, Auckland: Artigiano Ltd, 2006, pp 102-107; Moss, Victoria, ‘The ‘Iron’y of it all’, B-Guided, issue 4, pp 30-33;Corner, Katy, ‘Wellington Review’, Art News New Zealand, Summer 2004, p 21