Dick Frizzell’s instantly recognisable text-based works explore the visual aspects of the writing that surrounds us. They lead us to reconsider how we experience written language and our preconceptions of what constitutes an artwork. Bark features two prominent strands of Frizzell’s word canvases: configurations of hand-drawn signage and works that feature the poems of Sam Hunt. By removing advertising slogans from their original contexts and presenting poetry as painting, Frizzell disrupts our comprehension of them – the words are ‘read’ differently and their meaning slips and slides.
Red Painting, Blue Painting, and Brown Painting are prime examples of Frizzell’s engagement with the vernacular of homemade roadside signs seen throughout the country. As their titles suggest, the content of each work is grounded firstly in painterly rather than semiotic concerns. The way the artist has used colour, space, and line on the canvas is as important as the fact that Brown Painting includes phrases as varied as ‘Jesus Loves You’, ‘Bait + Ice’, and ‘Lube $10’. Words become devices of form and structure as well as carriers of meaning and this is underscored when we see the care with which Frizzell has laid on the paint. His considered brushstrokes are placed with regard to creating texture and weight where required to produce a cohesive, singular painting.
That said, Frizzell’s juxtaposition of disconnected ‘signs’ also operates as a commentary on New Zealand’s social fabric. They are redolent of plucky individual enterprise in a rural hinterland that might feature in the ‘golden summer’ memories of many New Zealanders, but which is increasingly disconnected from an urbanised populace. Horseshit (2015) illustrates this disconnect perfectly and also celebrates the perfectly poised irony of an artwork featuring ads for horse manure hanging in a gallery. Frizzell is poking fun at the art establishment but invites us in on the joke.
Sam Hunt calls the printed poem the “score of the poem” (1). Frizzell gives Hunt’s poems tactile, visible textures – cadences - that literally colour the way they are read. This lies parallel to the oral and aural traditions of poetry as a literary artform; by existing as a painting, each poem takes on a pictorial life before it is read. In Sara – a Sam Hunt Poem (2011) the large vertical letters used for the poem’s refrain anchor the eye, they are visual full-stops and emphasise even more the central phrase “Your body has no flaw”. The curves and slopes of the text further suggest the organic forms of a woman’s body – and the landscape she becomes for the narrator. Frizzell provides one way in to Hunt’s poetry, but does not determine its reading nor mask the lyricism of the poet’s voice.